The Politics of the Doughnut

On the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, and taking the publication of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics as his cue, Maurice Macartney calls for a move towards global economic democracy

Beyond the #CrankEconomy, the Doughnut

“The social responsibility of business”, said free-market evangelist Milton Friedman in 1970, “is to increase its profits”.

Profits first, profits above all, profits as a ‘social responsibility’, overriding any other possible responsibilities. There could scarcely be a clearer articulation of the gospel of the crank economy.  Economists and politicians of a certain bent (though by no means all) embraced this as orthodoxy, and over the next few decades skewed the economy (and politics) towards the overriding goal of increasing corporate profits, often by disempowering those at the base of the economic pyramid. The system that cranked rewards for the profit-makers up and pushed ‘costs’ – such as workers’ wages, terms and conditions, pollution controls and so on – down, was defended not just in economic terms but also as an almost moral imperative. On the fourth anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, an industrial accident that took the lives of over 1,100 garment workers, it is perhaps worth rethinking the morality and even humanity of this globally dominant paradigm.  The line from Friedman is quoted in a new book by Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, a work which undertakes just such a rethinking.

Beyond Crank Economics

In brief, her argument is that we have to move away from a linear model of the economy premised on endless exponential growth to one shaped rather like a doughnut. The hole in the middle represents a state of deprivation that leaves many people falling short of basic human necessities. The outer edge of the doughnut represents the limits to the natural world’s capacity to regenerate: go beyond this and you push the ecosystem into catastrophic collapse, across a range of measures such as fresh water depletion, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorous poisoning, and of course climate change.

“Between those two rings”, says Raworth, “is the Doughnut itself, the space in which we can meet the needs of all within the means of the planet”.

It may seem a quirky, even trivial image with which to combat the globally dominant paradigm, but as Raworth herself stresses, orthodox neoliberal economics itself relies on certain simple but potent images – from Kuznets curves to the ‘scissors’ of supply and demand, to the apparently ‘gently’ upward-sloping exponential curve that sets out the (impossible) vision of limitless GDP growth – to get their message across. And the message is that endless growth is good, regardless of the inequality or pollution that results from its pursuit. Growth, or so its adepts believe, will eventually (like jam tomorrow) cure the very ills it causes.

Since the economic crash of 2008, as Raworth notes, even many formerly devout believers have come to doubt this story. Indeed, she is able to cite a list of writers from a range of disciplines whose texts would amount to a foundation course in new economic (and political) thinking for the 21st Century (see below).

To get into the Doughnut, Raworth argues, we will have to get away from our fixation on the dominant way of measuring economic progress – growing GDP – and move towards both a “far more equitable distribution of humanity’s use of resources” and a much more “circular” economy.

Raworth’s vision for the economy to come is one in which the state, the commons, and the markets (yes, socially embedded, well-regulated markets still have a key role) operate in balance. To make the shift to such a system will require close attention to system dynamics, with its circulatory flows and feedback loops, rather than the linear, mechanical model; it will mean moving from an extract, use up and dump model towards a circular economy, which, like nature, does not produce ‘waste’ as a side-effect, but uses the outputs of one process as food for the next, by design, in a continuous flow from cradle to cradle.  The economy to come will not be redistributive but distributive; it will not be extractive but regenerative; and we must begin to build a politics designed to bring that about.

In one key passage, Raworth notes that you will scarcely find the word ‘power’ in modern economics textbooks, except, perhaps, in an analysis of electricity sector reform. But power relations are everywhere, running through every aspect of human life.  The orthodox economic model simply skirts the issue. For Raworth, one element in particular demands attention: “the power of the wealthy to reshape the economy’s rules in their favour”.

It is a crucial insight, and one shared by a growing range of thinkers and actors. Robert Reich, in his most recent book, speaks of “the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs”.

Bernie Sanders puts with characteristic vigour: “if billionaires are freed to give unlimited sums of money to candidates, it will mean in no uncertain terms that those candidates become nothing more than paid employees of their sponsors”.

Global Economic Democracy

If we are to make the transition away from the dominance of the crank economy, we have to realise that the phrase ‘money is power’ is not a metaphor. Politics and the economy are not separate spheres: they are both about the distribution of power. Separating politics and economy out is a political move, and one that is part of the problem. It has helped lead us to the crises we are living through. It is, at heart, anti-democratic.

In effect it says to the majority of the citizens ‘you are of equal political status – your vote counts for as much as the wealthy – but we are going to hand control of the economy to some (highly rewarded) experts who will run it as they think best. It is for your own good. And if inequality increases and the environment is degraded, if your factories are shut down and your farm-gate prices sink below the cost of production, well, sorry, but it’s not a political (democratic) matter: there is no alternative’.

But you don’t have to subscribe to the ideas of Karl Marx to know there are, and always have been alternatives, from Keynes through JK Galbraith to Steve Keen and others. The neoliberal turn that began in the 1970s and picked up pace with the end of the Cold War was always a political project, not just a helpless response to iron economic necessity. Even had it been necessary at one stage, the onset of catastrophic climate change, the global economic crash of 2008, as well as the all too literal crash of the Rana Plaza building on 24 April 2013, should have made it obvious that we urgently need a paradigm shift.

Raworth’s book is a valuable contribution to just such a shift. Appended below are a few other suggestions. But if there is to be a paradigm shift it won’t come about through reading alone. Indeed if Raworth’s book had nothing more to recommend it than the series of examples of innovators at work (though it very much does) it would be worth reading.

If the currently dominant model cranks power vertically to the top (by putting pressure down at the bottom), then the answer is to shift the gearing so that the transmission mechanisms start spreading the power horizontally. The answer, that is, will be democracy. Not the first-past-the-post, vote once every five years kind of democracy, but democracy that runs from the grassroots all the way to the top of the political tree (rather than vice-versa). We need to ensure that much more wealth and power begins to circulate around our local economies. At the same time, we have to rethink what our ‘local’ economy means.

If the shirts on our backs are stitched together by garment workers in Bangladesh, then they, too, are our neighbours. It is now well understood that we have a ‘carbon footprint’ that stretches well beyond our geographical location: it is equally the case that we have a social footprint that is not confined to our immediate vicinity.

But if our social and environmental footprint stretches out globally, then so too does our power.

We live in a global neighbourhood; our way of living affects our neighbours, and they affect us. It is the choices that we make, collectively, which shape the global economy. So we need not wait for a paradigm shift to be handed down from above: we can begin the transition here, now.

Find your nearest cooperatives and support them; join a trade union; save your money in a responsible bank; buy ethically sourced and certified goods; use public transport and demand investment in the network. Demand of your representatives in your local, regional, national and international political forums: stop turning the crank; start building economic democracy by injecting power horizontally, circulating through the grass roots of our local political economies and spreading into our wider, global neighbourhood.

Each action may seem small, almost trivial, rather like the image of the doughnut itself; but democratic movements – the Chartists, the anti-slavery campaign, the Civil Rights movement – always start with a few and then spread, sometimes in the teeth of fierce resistance.

That, after all, is what people-power is all about.

Maurice Macartney

24 April 2017

Global Economic Democracy: a short starter pack

Klein, Naomi (2007), The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Allen Lane, London.

Klein, Naomi (2014), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Leonard, Annie (2010), The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health – and a Vision for Change, Free Press, New York.

Mason, Paul (2016), Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London, Penguin

 Meadows, Donella, Meadows, Dennis, and Randers, Jorgen (2004) The Limits to Growth: the Thirty Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Raworth, Kate (2017), Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, Random House Business

Sandel, Michael (2012), What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Penguin, London.        

Sanders, Bernie (2016), Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, Profile Books, London.

Wilkinson, Richard, and Pickett, Kate (2010), The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, Penguin, London.

Why an anti-Brexit election pact in Northern Ireland is unlikely

Jenny Muir considers the possibilities for pacts in the run up to yet another snap election.

In a previous Combination post I have written about developing a politics of progressive pragmatism, based around “broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box”. That’s because election time raises a crucial and very basic question about alliances – progressive or otherwise. Fighting elections is an important part of what political parties do. So why would you become a party activist, in many cases put in hours of voluntary work over the years, to then stand down your candidate and tell your supporters to vote for another party?

The answer is that you have your eye on a prize that transcends your normal election agenda. This is why pacts are rare. The best known in Northern Ireland is the Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 Westminster by-election won by Bobby Sands. Here, the objective was to elect a hunger striker to embarrass the British Government and win support for their cause. Sands died 26 days later. It was an effective tactic, although it is fair to question just how ‘voluntary’ were some of the candidate withdrawals.

More recently, we have had the disastrous UUP and Conservative Party connection in 2009 and 2010, which did not have such a clear intent. It appeared to be a precursor to a merger, which did not happen in the end. However, in the 2015 general election there was a more successful agreement between the UUP and DUP in four ruthlessly targeted constituencies. This pact maintained the independence of both parties and unseated both Naomi Long from East Belfast (by the DUP) and Michelle Gildernew from Fermanagh and South Tyrone (by the UUP). The overarching goal here was to keep out themmuns – and there is talk that we shall face the same again.

So is Brexit a transcendent issue on this scale? Could parties agree who should be involved in an anti Brexit pact, agree a common policy approach, and then agree who stands where?

  • Who should be involved? Alliance have already ruled themselves out. Other anti Brexit parties include the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens. The position of the UUP appears to have retreated into getting the best for NI rather than any continuing active opposition. People Before Profit were pro Brexit. Current discussions seem only to have included SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens.
  • What does being anti Brexit actually mean? ‘Special Status’ for Northern Ireland? A second referendum? The best possible Article 50 deal? Staying in the Single Market? Whatever you’re having yourself?
  • How would an anti Brexit approach be put into practice? If a position could be agreed, the MP representing it would need to attend the House of Commons to speak and vote on it.
  • Which party stands where? Presumably a pact would target the eight seats currently held by the DUP (East Belfast, North Belfast, East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley, North Antrim, Strangford and Upper Bann), and possibly the two UUP seats (South Antrim, and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) if there were a feeling that the UUP cannot be relied upon.

Regarding current the DUP seats: The only chance of unseating the DUP in East Belfast comes from Alliance. In North Belfast, North Antrim and Upper Bann SF could win but it would require no DUP/ UUP pact, and result in more abstentionist MPs. In East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford the strongest challengers are the UUP and Alliance. In East Londonderry, SF and the SDLP would need UUP votes to unseat the DUP. Regarding the current UUP seats, South Antrim is a fight between the UUP and the DUP; and FST is always close run between a unionist and SF; however again the pro Brexit MP would not be taking their seat. 

In short, the most effective challenger in most of these seats would be the UUP, Alliance or the abstentionist Sinn Fein. The main beneficiary from an anti Brexit pact would be Sinn Féin.

To conclude, an anti Brexit pact in Northern Ireland would need to meet the criterion of being an overarching imperative which all participating parties agree is more important than their own agendas. It would need a very clear understanding of what being anti Brexit actually means, in order to communicate to the electorate what they would be voting for. It would require all parties to commit to taking their seats at Westminster in order actively to oppose Brexit. And given NI’s communal voting patterns, it would be hard for any party other than Sinn Féin to usurp the DUP or UUP in their currently seats, especially without the co-operation of the Alliance Party.

Therefore an anti Brexit pact in NI is unlikely. But sadly it does look as if we’ll get a pan unionist pact again. It says much about our politics that some parties can work together to keep us divided, whereas we cannot meaningfully combine on the most important issue of our time. Voters will have to make their own decisions.

Jenny Muir

22 April 2017

I wouldn’t start from here

In the wake of recent events in Syria, Tanya Jones argues that we need to find and develop nonviolent ways of extending real democracy, of sharing resources fairly, and of resolving conflict. We may not have chosen this as a starting point; but if we don’t start now, she warns, it is going to get a great deal harder in the near future.

What will remain of us if we don’t build democracy and nonviolence now?

If you don’t hurt people, you don’t really care.  That seems to be the message of the almost universal Western approval of the US bombing of Syria on Thursday.  We don’t know what the effects of the fifty-nine missiles will be, how many people have been killed immediately and how many will suffer from their effects. We don’t really mind that Donald Trump acted without the authority either of the United Nations or of his own Congress.  We don’t ask ourselves, remembering the Ghouta attack of 2013, how sure we can really be of Assad’s culpability this time.  We simply breathe a sigh of relief that something has been done, some ‘message sent’, some tension relieved, some reassurance given than we are not callous observers.  If the alternatives are indifference or violence, we will, when the stakes are presented as so high, choose violence.

There was a time when this was true on every level, the domestic as well as the global.  Parents and schoolteachers who did not beat the children in their charge were irresponsible, naive, ultimately cruel in neglecting their duty to mould children into virtue.  Our criminal justice system relied upon violence as its ultimate sanction.  Slowly, very slowly, we came to realise that there were better ways. This realisation trickled as far as our attitude towards our nearest neighbours, though, as evidenced by Michael Howard’s comments about Spain, it may not long survive Brexit. But as far as our stance towards the world at large is concerned, violence is still the answer.

Sometimes this means outright war, though that is expensive in every sense.  More often we content ourselves with one-off incidents, or, as now, by approving those of others; with arming, funding and training direct combatants; with supporting proxy militias, with subsidised arms sales or by the use of military technology in ways that are unclear and often, as in ‘no-fly zones’ don’t sound overly aggressive at all.  All of these involvements of course kill people, primarily civilians, all of them prolong the conflicts, all of them enmesh us, however ignorant we may be, in the web of violence, and all of them reduce our capability to act as honest brokers in helping to seek resolution and peace.

But what are the alternatives?  If we are determined to reject violence, are we condemned to a UKIP-style insularity whereby we don’t attack others only because it’s too much trouble?  I don’t believe so.  The absence of a positive word for non-violence should not mislead us into thinking that it is a lesser, an easier, a weaker alternative to the rifle or the drone.  On the contrary, it is considerably more difficult, not least because our position in the world, the structures that uphold us, have been built for so many centuries upon the threat and use of violence. To take part in peaceful, co-operative solutions, the UK needs not just to begin at the same level as its potential partners but to show a degree of humility and regret for past mistakes that sits particularly ill with our current bombastic jingoism.  In the words of the old joke, in this, as in so much else, I wouldn’t start from here.

But, given that here is where we are, perhaps we might try some of the following:

  1. Tell the truth. About history and in particular our own role.  As far as Syria and the Middle East are concerned, that includes the Sykes-Picot Agreement of a hundred years ago, Winston Churchill’s bright idea, long before his national treasurehood, of converting the Navy from coal to oil and needing a source for the same, the Suez Canal and our dependence upon India to buy our stuff, the duplicitous mess we made over Israel and Palestine, our ongoing rivalry with France and our part in the Cold War, all long before Blair and the dodgy dossier.   About the complexity of the Syrian war and the impossiblity of finding a side wholeheartedly to support.  About the role of climate change in catalysing the conflict, and our responsibility for that.  About what lies behind the simple diagrams and cheerful words about ‘precision bombing’ and ‘collateral damage’.
  2. Listen to the voices. There’s nothing essentially unusual or alien about the conflict in Syria. Those who began demonstrating in March 2011, as part of the wider Arab Spring, wanted what we all want: a chance to have our say in our own government, to talk about politics and our lives, to have the chance to earn a living and care for our families, to give our children a better future. Those same quiet voices are speaking throughout the world, and we, in our privileged position, have the opportunity to listen, to amplify, to reply and to support them, before they are shouted down by noisier demands. Which leads me to:
  3. Understand the potential for violence and sectarianism. Most movements for reform, for human rights and equality begin peacefully, very peacefully. No one knows better than the oppressed that real social justice and equality can’t exist in a world of division and death.  But where good and positive protest is met by violent repression, old wounds can easily be opened, solidarity fissured into prejudice and courage twisted into despair.  Then we look, too late, across from our comfortable vantage-point and blame ethnic and religious identities for conflicts that have a much more universal cause.
  4. Don’t demonise individuals. It’s so tempting, and so easy to ascribe all blame to ‘evil’ leaders, whether ‘dictators’ or ‘terrorists’ and so to turn messy and complex situations into simple morality plays. It’s used to justify violence, to distinguish this particular act of cleansing from the ambiguities of past actions and to avoid dealing with our own complicity and the need to dismantle some of our own privilege. It might be as well to remind ourselves, too, of the clay feet of our favourite heroes.
  5. Help those in need. With so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, of course: food, water, shelter, medical care. But also by providing spaces for dialogue, exploration, discovery, transformation (of us as well as them), by demonstrating patience and generosity.  Those of us living in Northern Ireland are acutely aware of how very much time and room is needed to build peace, and that the process, as the past few weeks have shown, is not without its cul-de-sacs and quagmires.  And if that is the case with a conflict so comparatively straightforward, with so few truly global implications and so little outside intermeddling, we might have the grace to realise how much more goodwill and good energies will be needed to achieve the common good in the Middle East.
  6. Welcome refugees. Again, a little imagination would go a long way. These are people like us, people whose needs and hopes are basically the same as our own, with the difference that they have been forced from their homes, their work, often their families, everything that made their daily lives humdrum and ordinary.  They ask very little, mostly to go home as soon as they can.  We can learn far more than we are called upon to give.
  7. Be brave. It’s not always easy to go against the consensus, especially when that consensus is supported by such a wave of moral outrage and illustrated by scenes of horror and heart-stopping tenderness. However bad the consequences of military action, its adherents can comfort themselves by saying ‘At least we did something’.  Non-violent action is something too, often very much more, but it doesn’t reach the front pages, and it’s not so easy to condense into 140 characters.  So make connections, talk, give generously, say sorry, pray if that’s your thing, but most of all listen and think.  This isn’t primarily about us, about virtue-signalling, or appearing strong, or making sure we condemn in all the right places.  It’s about the people affected now, and their children and theirs in turn.  And it’s about all the people in other places who will, over the next decades, gather in their city squares calling for justice and equality and a halfway decent life.

We have a little space of time now, while the world is still comparatively stable, while the European Union still exists, while nuclear weapons haven’t been used to their full extent for seventy years, before our harvests and water supplies and coasts are devastated by climate change.  In this little space of time we could, if we set our minds to it, really find and develop nonviolent ways of welcoming campaigns for equality and free speech, of celebrating diversity and change, of facilitating real democracy of sharing resources fairly and of resolving conflict. It’s going to be a great deal harder if we don’t do it now. Let’s not give up before we’ve tried.

Tanya Jones

10 April 2017