As I write, Hurricane Irma has just ripped through Florida, uprooting trees, overturning cars and bringing flooding in its wake. The giant storm had already left a trail of destruction across the islands of the Caribbean. And it was the second major hurricane to make landfall in the US in less than a month.
As Harvey receded and Irma began to approach, an influential conservative US commentator, Rush Limbaugh, cast doubt on the storm warnings: “there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda”, he said, “and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it”.
Within days, he himself had fled the oncoming destruction. It remains to be seen whether or not that destruction takes Limbaugh’s credibility down with it. Probably not, unfortunately, at least among his fanbase; because faced with the evidence of the damage he will simply switch to claiming that ‘the left’ is politicising an emergency. Which is a bad thing, of course; something the right, by implication, would never stoop to. That his first reaction to an oncoming storm was to criticise ‘the left’, for example, should in no way be taken as a politicisation of the emergency.
Obvious hypocrisy aside, his credibility, of course, should have been swept out to sea by now. The meteorologists were warning of a dangerous, powerful storm. The authorities were urging people to evacuate for their own safety. Limbaugh was telling them to fill up a few water bottles and watch out for reds under the bed. Effectively, he was prepared to put other people’s lives (though not his own) at risk for the sake of obstinately maintaining his ideological purity.
Climate change deniers keep denying, even as record storms rip through the east and wildfires ravage the west. The Trump Administration has gone as far as to instruct staff to drop the term ‘climate change’, replacing it with ‘weather extremes’ in their publications. The same instruction replaces “reduce greenhouse gases” with “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Moreover, “sequester carbon” is to be replaced by “build soil organic matter”.
But with Texas, Florida, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and California all affected in this season alone, the question is, just how much of America are the deniers prepared to see engulfed before they admit they were wrong?
My guess is, quite a bit. If they are impervious to the 97 percent of scientific papers that support the idea of human-caused global warming, it is clear that facts are not enough to dislodge the belief system conservatism clings to. Whatever the ‘liberals’ say (and by the way, this term of ‘abuse’, in the conservatives’ lexicon, includes scientists) they simply must be wrong. Where the facts include a flooded East Coast and a charred West, the conservative response will be to denounce anyone who ‘politicises’ a tragedy. As though their own politics didn’t contribute to it.
Conservatism activates tribalism to cling to power, but remains ready to sacrifice the tribe.
That is, those with wealth and power activate nationalism, xenophobia and other forms of ‘denomination’ so that they, the powerful few, can retain power, even if this comes at the expense of their grass-roots supporters. And it is, as usual, the ordinary citizens, the working people, the least well off, who suffer the worst of the consequences. Their houses are less robust than those of the wealthy; they only have one house, and can’t just flee to another property in their portfolio; they can’t afford decent insurance; they can’t afford the repairs; their workplace – unlike Wall Street – has been devastated too.
Similar forces are at work in the UK.
In the crank economy, the model that has been dominant in the US and UK in recent decades, the bulk of the forces are directed vertically, pushing ever greater rewards to the top, squeezing down on those at the bottom. Inequality increases. Poverty deepens. Minorities and migrants face resentment stoked by media owned and edited by the wealthy.
When the whole thing comes crashing to a halt, rather than addressing the inherent problems of the crank, our political leaders on the conservative side set about getting us to turn it faster and faster again. Many self-described ‘moderates’ too seem to think that getting the crank turning faster again will solve the problem: growth will go back up, and therefore we will have the money to go back to spending generously on welfare and public services. After all, you have to make sure there’s plenty of growth at the top (you have to be ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting ‘filthy rich’) if you are going to redistribute from the top down (‘as long as they pay their taxes’).
But it is the effects of the crank economy itself that have led us into crisis, both in terms of the social and economic inequality that sees a million food parcels handed out even as the FTSE index and Dow Jones keep breaking records and in terms of a climate crisis that is also a food crisis and a migration crisis.
You don’t solve the whole interconnected suite of problems caused by the crank by turning it faster. Not while all the gearing is directed vertically.
Instead, we must direct our forces horizontally. The whole aim and thrust of political economy must be to increase the share of power and income and wealth of those currently with least. Not indirectly, by first channeling it to the top; directly, by spreading power and wealth horizontally at the grass roots. Ordinary workers and their families, people who would be workers, but don’t have the opportunity, people working, but not as many hours as they would like, people trying to raise families on wages that have fallen too far behind to raise families – even as a tier of shareholders and wealth managers soar ever farther above the average.
From the Crank to the Cycle
Spread money and power horizontally, so that it can cycle and recycle, injecting new dynamics into local communities, and the whole dynamics of the general political macroeconomy can be transformed. The economy can become something that works for the common good, where commoners connect and combine.
The progressive task is to connect the dots, the whole range of issues, and combine with others campaigning to democratise power in this country, and in our global neighbourhood. And there are plenty of particular issues to campaign on.
Nearly a third of children in the UK live in poverty. McDonald’s workers are on minimum wage, while the boss takes home millions. Ongoing austerity is about to take another fifty pounds a week out of the pockets of the poor. The treatment of people with disabilities has been a national disgrace. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities are still disproportionately adversely affected by inequality, especially if they are women.
The issues all connect.
Ten years on from the bail out of northern rock conservatives still tell people their tale – blaming a private sector fiasco caused by greedy speculation on the public sector and foreigners, then using the opportunity to reduce public spending and regulations.
Somehow, the ongoing inequality, the poverty, the deep problems over Brexit, the failure of Brexiteers’ predictions of an ‘easy’ deal, the exposure of their falsehoods, even Grenfell, do not dent the hold of tale of the take back control brigade.
It is time, as George Monbiot has pointed out, to start telling a new story.
The effects of Hurricane Irma are plain to see. But there has been a storm invisibly working its way through our neighbourhoods for years, just as deadly, just as much influenced by political-economic choices.
13 September 2017