2007 - 2021

Tipping over the Tables

Justin Kenrick on how to reverse the rise of the populist right and win for ecology and democracy.

Part One – Winning back Hope

You can only win by pretending to be anti-establishment (Brexit, Trump, Erdogan) or actually being anti-establishment (the Yes movement, Corbyn, Sanders). Each of the first three are made to appear invincible, each of the last three ridiculed as impossible.

But the status quo pundits are way behind the curve.

Post-World War 2, a shared response to the catastrophes of capitalism’s Great Depression and Nazism’s holocaust wars, created a political world of opposition/ balance: Unions and Bosses, East Europe and West.

The fall of the Wall and the smashing of the Unions embodied a very different story: the so-called end of history and triumph of capitalism. But a capitalism that is incapable of sharing the fruits of others labours, and that opens up free trade the better to undercut workers at home and exploit others abroad could have no staying power.

So into the breach stepped Farage and Le Pen and Trump, the media lapping up and magnifying a personality-focused story of the ‘ordinary man’ standing up against political correctness (presented as top down control), against the inauthentic (say what you mean!), against the liberal orthodoxy of openness to others (the better to exploit them if bosses, to enjoy them if secure, to fear them if already under threat and being ignored).

And so the pundits were wrong.

But the last battle is already over, even though the last skirmish – Erdogan’s paltry 51.35% vote for authoritarianism in Turkey – is only a day on the slab.

The pundits preach that hate is anti-establishment and is the only way to win. And preach, even more fiercely, that being genuinely anti-establishment, that being the real deal – driven by care not hate – means it is not possible to succeed.

That is now looking less true across continental Europe in the 2017 elections.

The media (BBC included) was desperate to focus on the far right in Austria even when an independent Green became President, the Guardian prints a lavish article on Le Pen even while a multicultural Blairite and then a real-deal socialist rise to the fore, and the media seemed forlorn to find Holland not dancing to their and Wilders tune, but instead the Greens polling strongly. The pundits continue chasing 2016’s siren song.

But where the right has already succeeded – in America, in the Brexit Tory coup, in Erdogan’s Turkey – it will be a different story. Their ‘anti’-establishment cry is ‘unity’ while dividing us with bitter hate and sugar coated fearful lies, while the ashen aftertaste of hopelessness (the establishment’s only real weapon) sets up an entirely different stage.

Trump and Brexit and Erdogan won by a whisker, or didn’t win at all. As they fail, they’ll do all they can to make it the fault of anyone weaker – but that lie is fast running out.

In Scotland the veil of lies from the first IndyRef is threadbare, sea through, bitter cold, the vultures visible where before many thought people of stature and integrity stood.

Listening to the Tories and Labour braying in Holyrood in the debate on whether there should be a second IndyRef, their game plan is clear: be as offensive as possible, try and get the SNP and Greens to respond in the same manner, try to show just how horrible we all are, how hopeless, how unfit to run our own affairs. It is always extraordinary to listen to politicians crowing about how awful the economy they have made for us is, and how we are just as racist and homophobic and right-wing as south of the border (we aren’t, and nor in fact are they, only their voting system means they forever have to choose the lesser of two evils, and their Brexit politicians have given the green light to racism and hate).

It is clear that hope is the enemy of those who benefit from the status quo, and resisting their insistence on hopelessness is a powerful political act.

But such resistance has to be double edged:

1. we have to recognise just how profoundly hopeless the situation is if we leave our futures in the hands of those bringing us to the verge of socio-ecological destruction; and
2. we have to recognise that there is an alternative path into the future, one that can reclaim our society and ecology from the wrecking ball of a system of economic growth that says: “either you remain part of this plundering system (and so your kids futures are over) or you stop us in our tracks (and so we’ll impoverish you now)”.

Is there a way to open up space for care?

Is there a way to open up space for care with the Yes movement for democracy and self-determination in Scotland, with Social Democrats in Europe, and with the movement Sanders stood for in America?

What are the opportunities, as the promises of the No campaign (‘the EU and NHS is safe’, ‘a Labour Government is likely’) of Brexit (‘£350m extra a week for the NHS’), of Trump (‘no more domination by DC’, ‘no more wars’) and of Erdogan (‘unity’) fall through the safety net of lies and crash to the floor?

Is it up to to us to do the work, to insist on hope, to be clear that the game has got so much more serious these last few years?

There may be no road back to the social democratic compromise with capitalism, to reigning in the mogul billionaires while still leaving them to run the casino that spins our futures into oblivion on its fantasy wheel.

It may be that we are in a moment where the stakes are far higher.

Socio-ecological collapse, including through war, wrecked by a plundering system has been sending shockwaves through Africa and the Middle East, with severe consequences for Europe as well. Now as the Arctic, Antarctic and Tundra melt, we’re hitting an ecological tipping point, and balancing on the see saw may no longer be a possibility:

1. Continuing as we are, we tip over tumbling through into a world where ‘environmental concern’ is no longer something happening to other species and other places, but is about whether and where food can be grown, storms be coped with, as we realise it has always been the ‘ecology stupid’ that nourishes or devastates us; or

2. We need to come hard down at the very other end of the see saw, we need to radicalise the movement for self-determination, for Europe, for internationalism, so it is not about seeking an equal place at the casino table, but seeking to start from where we are, and link internationally across Europe, Africa, Americas, Asia, to overturn the table, remove the money lenders, and restore our faith in our humanity.

Part Two – Winning the Constitution

To radically reduce the impact of human society on the planet, and so avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to stop the wrecking ball of economic growth from smashing on with its accelerating social and ecological disasters.

To stop the smashing of the Arctic, the Antarctic, the tundra, the topsoil, the forests, the oceans, the atmosphere, the sustainability of farming and fishing and gathering and mutual care, we need to stop this deluded ‘there-is-no-alternative’ story and system.


“To stop the smashing of the Arctic, the Antarctic, the tundra, the topsoil, the forests, the oceans, the atmosphere, the sustainability of farming and fishing and gathering and mutual care, we need to stop this deluded ‘there-is-no-alternative’ story and system.”

If we let ourselves be fooled into believing that we are as the dominant story tells us we are, then we are finished. The story of ‘there-being-no-other-way’ is how our acquiescence is secured to the system that dominates us. We need to finish with it.

The system suggests that the only political possibilities are on the fringes (allowed there until they come to threaten the core driver of the wrecking ball), or in paltry choices between political parties responding to a short election cycle and so having to remain timidly indifferent to a larger picture that cannot be fitted into that frame.

Perhaps three things are needed:
1. communities where resilience is practiced, supporting
2. social movements to resist the wrecking ball, creating
3. new political systems to redirect us into restoring not destroying our world.

To some extent we have the first, to some extent we have the second, but what is missing entirely is the third. How can politics speak to where people are, while creating the context for addressing the larger picture of where we’re headed?

To win requires reframing the debate so it is carried out on new terrain, terrain that the old order can be dragged into but have no knowledge of how to fight and win on.

Here is one possible way of creating the new terrain, but there may be much better ones.

As well as political parties seeking to win elections, and a movement for self-determination seeking independence, we make a movement to restore the constitution. Constitution in the sense of a new framework for political action – a written constitution that constrains the current orthodoxy, and enables political choices that restore socio-ecological dynamism and balance so we can live, and live well.

How to go about it:

Can we take self-determination into our own hands by creating a movement focused on the content of a new constitution for Europe, for the UK (if it persists), but focused on the content of a constitution for Scotland, one that could enable the transformation from an economy that exploits society and ecology to one that restores both?

What would be the content of a written constitution that includes a transformative series of steps that the first Government would have to take? What would be the transformative legislation that the first Government would be required to enact within a specific timeframe or lose office and have to face re-election?

In the new Kenyan constitution (August 2010) there was a requirement for a series of laws to be passed to address fundamental questions within five, or at most, six years. Failure to do so would mean the Government would fall and new elections would have to be called. The required laws that most challenge the elite were left until the last moment (e.g. the Community Land Act was passed in the last days of August 2016).

Sketching possible starting points for content and process:

1. a citizens’ income funded from sources that include a high top rate of tax (one that would also serve to scare away the wealth-takers who masquerade as ‘wealth creators’), and from a cap and share tax on fossil fuels at their entry into the economy (thereby also enabling fossil fuels to be priced out by renewables);

2. radical land reform to enable community buy outs (urban and rural) that involve developing social/ energy/ care/ food growing/ production infrastructure supported by a national investment bank that also invests in (and recoups good currency from) public offshore tidal and wind energy, and that resources public transport which is made free even as private transport vanishes due to the high price of fuel (with rural areas enabled to go electric);

3. democratic local economic systems (including local production/ local currencies/ local food systems etc.) bolstered by communities being resourced to take over production systems, and these requiring local to local exchanges and support to enable the resource rich to help the resource poor to achieve equality.

There would need to be a raft of other such key changes required by the constitution (including to deal with tax dodging, to get rid of nuclear weapons, to make education playful and fun and intelligent, to make strong local government that starts from the very local rather than is yet another imposed tier, etc.)

Such a constitution could create the framework to transform our role in driving climate chaos and resource grabbing, into rebuilding a society where all are enriched to make a future, rather than impoverished by greed and fear, cynicism and hopelessness.

A vote in favour of such a constitution could set the state on course to dismantle capitalism, but in such a way that the state is also itself dismantled in favour of communities, except where communities need reminding where their real wealth comes from. Treating each other fairly, refusing cynicism, no longer standing disdainfully to one side; but instead daring to be the adults in the room who get the joke, who feel the damage being wrought, and do something – maybe this thing? – about it.

Voting in a transformative constitution (like the 2010 Kenyan one in intent, but far more radical in ambition) would mean voting in a set of laws, policies and institutional infrastructure that empowers. It would end the power of those dedicated to disempowering others, and enable needs to be met and relationships of unexpected care, ridiculous humour, and normal human banter to flourish, in place of this rarefied system which always pretends that we have to leave the big issues to ‘them’ to sort, and their sorting is simply the stealing of our society.

The elections that followed would be within a framework dedicated to empowering the public and restoring our world, rather than within one that is hell bent. The constitution could be changed through whatever majority was required to bring it into being.

Reframing the constitutional question in this way, could enable a move away from the clash between those focused on bread and butter issues and those focused on the ‘constitutional’ or climate change big pictures.

Reframing the bread and butter issues in this way, could mean we can take back the whole bakery.

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