Notes From Underground #6: The Salvage Work

This is the sixth in a series of essays from our Commissioning Editor, Dougald Hine. In Notes From Underground, Dougald invites us to explore the deeper context of the new climate movements that have emerged over the past eighteen months, asking what they tell us about the moment in which we find ourselves. The essays are also available as a podcast and on YouTube.

Three days before the general election, he appeared before a cheering crowd. They say it took a quarter of an hour for his supporters to quieten down enough that he could be heard. In the speech he gave, he listed the forces arrayed against him: among them, the business interests and the finance system, the bankers and the speculators.

‘They are unanimous in their hate for me,’ he declared, ‘and I welcome their hatred.’

This was Roosevelt’s Madison Square Garden speech, made as he stood on the brink of reelection in the autumn of 1936. This was the political atmosphere in which the New Deal was made.

It had begun, three years before, with a round of quick-fire legislation following his inauguration: this was the original ‘first hundred days’. New regulation to stabilise the financial system was matched with ambitious programmes of federal spending to put America back to work. Two-thirds of that spending went on public works, a roll-out of ‘socially useful’ infrastructure. The figures are daunting: 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges and 800 airports. Vast dams were built on rivers across the United States, feeding into an electricity grid that was extended to the smallest rural communities. At its peak, the Works Progress Administration employed 3.3 million workers, the foot soldiers of this epic campaign of modernisation. To this day, America as we know it is made possible by the infrastructure that they built.

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The first rumours of something called a Green New Deal began around the time Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth reached cinemas. There was an international Green Party project in 2006, then a few articles by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times the next year. Meanwhile, in London, a group of economists and environmentalists had begun work on a report published by the New Economics Foundation in the summer of 2008. The authors included Richard Murphy, Ann Pettifor and Caroline Lucas. Their deal was meant to meet the ‘triple crunch’: climate change, peak oil and an oncoming financial crisis. As that crisis deepened, it seemed like an idea whose time had come: the UN Environment Programme put out a report calling for a Global Green New Deal, pledges were made at the G20, an incoming President Obama put ‘green investment’ at the heart of his plan for economic recovery, while in the UK, a cross-party consensus backed the creation of a Green Investment Bank.

We know what happened next. Support for a Keynesian economic stimulus gave way to austerity and morality tales about the national debt. Under David Cameron, the Green Investment Bank was watered down, then sold off. Obama’s funding for renewables never matched the level of subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry. By 2012, you got articles with titles like ‘Whatever Happened to the Green New Deal?’

*   *   *

Twelve years. That’s how long it was from the first proposal for a Green New Deal to the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives in November 2018. That’s how much time we had left ‘to limit climate catastrophe’, according to a Guardian headline that autumn. The timeframe came from the IPCC’s 1.5° report. It found its way onto banners on demonstrations around the world. Other timeframes are available, but if you talk to the people who work on carbon budgets, they tell you even the twelve year figure is based on assumptions about ‘negative emissions technologies’ which have yet to be invented.

Quickly emerging as one of the most powerful voices on the left of American politics, Ocasio-Cortez became the Green New Deal’s new champion, while young activists from the Sunrise Movement put pressure on her colleagues in the Democratic Party establishment. Three months after her election, she brought forward a Green New Deal bill which set a goal of completing the transition to 100% renewable, zero-emission energy by 2030. If passed, it promised a programme of state-sponsored jobs to achieve this goal, along with universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage and action against monopolies. It was a package that went well beyond climate change, that was broad and radical enough to merit comparison with Roosevelt’s original New Deal, and that was bound to meet the kind of opposition Roosevelt had faced down.

The bill did not pass, but it marked the start of a new phase of activity around various shades of Green New Deal, from the Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of the manifesto on which Labour fought the UK general election, to the rather paler Green Deal announced by the European Commission last week, with its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

If you want to get a feel for where we’re at with all these different deals, you could start with Ben Wray’s article for ENOUGH!, based on his reading of the proposals on offer. A year after its reemergence on the political agenda, Wray suggests, the Green New Deal is moving ‘from a vague idea towards a concrete goal’. He emphasises the importance of defining this goal in terms of action that starts now, not targets for ten or twenty years into the future. It is too easy for politicians to sign up to targets.

The bit that jumps out at me from Wray’s account is when he gets to the question of degrowth. He writes that ‘the common denominator’ of Green New Deal economics ‘is a break with the current paradigm of growth’. 

This matters because we have no grounds for believing that ‘green growth’ is possible. Having surveyed the evidence and found it wanting, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis conclude that ‘the insistence on green growth is politically motivated’, something that has to be true because the alternative is unthinkable. So if there is a consensus emerging within Green New Deal thinking that we have to break with the growth paradigm, this marks a significant shift in what is considered thinkable.

I’m cautious, though, because Wray goes on to advise that, ‘while there is a need to reduce global economic output, it is better to couch that in the language of “better”, rather than “smaller”.’ It’s one thing to decide to downplay the degrowth agenda in the way that you present a Green New Deal, but if it’s best left unmentioned, how are we to know that this consensus really exists? 

Wray seems to rest this claim on the need for any meaningful version of the Green New Deal to be a socialist project, rather than a capitalist one. Markets alone are not going to rise to this challenge, that much seems clear. The kind of state-led green industrial revolution envisaged in the more ambitious versions of the Green New Deal involves a break from the logic of neoliberalism. Less obvious to me is why this would imply a break from the unsustainable trajectory of economic growth. After all, one of the charges laid against neoliberalism by its critics is that the long-run trend of growth in GDP since the late 1970s compares poorly to the post-war decades when the state took a stronger role in the economy. The New Deal of the 1930s was the original Keynesian stimulus, the government spending money to counteract the effects of the economic cycle. When Roosevelt came to power, the American economy had contracted for four straight years; in his first year, it grew by 10.8%.

If we take seriously the warning from Kallis and Hickel, then it seems a leap to assume that the Green New Deal provides a palatable framing behind which lies a tacit understanding that global economic output must contract. Rather, by invoking a mid-20th century mixed economy which the left can easily get nostalgic over, it seems a way of postponing more difficult conversations about the situation we are in and the responses that are called for.

There’s a larger point worth making here. As someone whose heart beats on the left, politically as well as anatomically, I find myself nonetheless uneasy with a response which sees in climate change a vindication of positions which our side held all along. The classic case of this is Naomi Klein’s awkwardly titled book, This Changes Everything. Awkward because Klein herself acknowledges that climate change has only lent urgency to beliefs and arguments she would be putting forward anyway. These, at least, remain unchanged.

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Why do you feel the need to pick a side? A friend asked me this, not long ago. Why write things like ‘my heart beats on the left’? Does it come from a need to be liked, to belong to a tribe? Don’t we need more independent voices, willing to step outside the old frames?

Well, it’s not like I’m going to pretend that the seating arrangements of the Assemblée Nationale in the early months of the French Revolution represent some timeless, transcultural axis. This whole left-right thing belongs to the category defined by the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott: ‘vernaculars cross-dressed as universals’. I’ll grant you, too, that the frame on which we string this axis is cracked; the assumptions which held it together undone by the unfolding collision with planetary realities. One of the books that made me think the most this year was Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth, with its invitation to redraw our political maps and reorient ourselves, recognising that the global visions of progress, right and left, depend upon a destination that can never be reached and a trajectory now revealed as suicidal. You don’t have to zoom out far to see that the axis of politics as we knew it will not survive the journey we are on.

Yet life is not lived from a position of zoomed-out detachment. We start where we find ourselves, born into particular times and places, working with the stories and traditions we are given, or working against them. And starting from here, I don’t find it difficult to know which side I’m on, when it comes to a choice like the one put before us last Thursday – or to know how I feel about the result.

When I step back from the immediate choices offered by a flawed electoral system and go looking for clues as to what might just still work in the world into which we are headed, the thinkers in whose company I find such clues are mostly coming from the left. They are the ones who are asking what can be salvaged from its traditions and achievements, though also what went overlooked. Like me, they are looking – in Anna Tsing’s phrase – for ‘possibilities of life in capitalist ruins’.

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One of these salvage-workers of the left is Jeremy Seabrook, a journalist from Northampton who started out writing for New Society in the 1960s. Seabrook belongs to an English tradition of socialist humanism whose best-known proponents were the historian E.P. Thompson and the pioneer of cultural studies, Richard Hoggart: thinkers who take seriously the experience of loss, the depth of culture, the way these things elude the economic gaze and complicate the narratives of progress. Those in the Labour Party who want to get beyond the blame game and make sense of the long process of erosion of support in communities where it could once be taken for granted might include his 1978 book, What Went Wrong?, on their winter reading lists.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Seabrook wrote a series of short books together with Trevor Blackwell, tracing the contours of a changed political landscape. Among the arguments that weave through The Politics of Hope and The Revolt Against Change, they suggest that we think of the Labour government of 1945 as a half-completed revolution. A working class movement had taken control of the state, but instead of remaking it in the spirit of its own institutions – the culture of the friendly society, the penny library and the cooperative – it built new, top-down systems, distant from the communities they served, rendering that culture obsolete. There’s a story here that I’ve heard in different corners of Europe, about the roots of social democracy in grassroots movements of mutual aid, far removed from the political culture of the parties that came to bear its name. It’s a history to be drawn on, not yearning after the values of a lost era, but because it can orient us to where a politics worth having might grow from now and why the well-meant promises of Labour’s latest manifesto failed to land.

Meanwhile, Seabrook and Blackwell’s excavations take them to a deeper layer of history, which helps to clarify the appeal and the limits of the Green New Deal. The modern left was born out of defeat, they explain: the defeat of earlier movements seeking to resist the industrialisation of the world. The turning point lies around the time of the Chartist movement, in the 1840s:

Chartism seriously envisaged a reversal or dismantling of industrial society. After the defeat of Chartism, opposition became focused upon demands for higher rewards for accepting the necessity for change. Much of what passed for socialism effectively said ‘If you want us to go along with this, you’ll have to make it worth our while.’ … any serious alternatives to such bargaining were banished to the realm of dreams, of utopias, of visions. The blood-curdling radicalism of Marx served, among other things, to conceal the need for the elaboration of true alternatives to the aggressive expansion of industrial society. Since the revolution envisaged by Marx appeared to pose the most extreme threat that the existing order could imagine, all other more radical projects readily withered in its life-denying shade.

Klein and others are not wrong to argue that neoliberalism has stood in the way of meaningful action on climate change, but their arguments do not go nearly far enough. The major traditions of the left since the mid-19th century have taken shape within the imaginative frame of industrial society, a frame which seeks to maximise production and which views the world as a collection of raw materials to be transformed by the application of human effort and ingenuity, all subsidised by great flows of energy. There is no point in wasting time on arguments about the benefits of industrialism and whether they were worth its costs, since for all its ingenuity, it has not produced a time machine. What matters now is that we can no longer afford to organise our societies according to this way of treating the world, to allow its processes to dominate our activities, or to allow its limits to define the limits of our political imagination.

Within those limits, the left sought to humanise industrial society as best it could and to fight for its weakest members. That’s why I know which side I’m coming from, but it’s not enough for the world into which we are headed.

*   *   *

This June, my family spent two weeks at Newspeak House, the London College of Political Technologists, just off the top of Brick Lane. One night, I came downstairs after putting my son to bed and found a book launch underway. The book was Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and one of those intellectual outriders of Corbynism I’d first crossed paths with among the student protests of early 2011. The manifesto he was launching is among the wilder expressions of a wider tendency on the left in the last few years, an attempt to reboot the future as it existed for a while in the high moments of the industrial era, as a vessel for collective hopes underwritten by the promise of technological progress.

It’s a tendency that starts with a recognition of something real enough: a widespread feeling that the future doesn’t work the way it used to. As the crisis of 2008 arrived in the everyday realities of people’s lives, it crystallised a consciousness that had been latent since the 1970s, and by the start of this decade, surveys across the Western countries showed that those who still believed today’s young people would have a better life than their parents were outnumbered, two-, three- or four-to-one, by those who thought they were going to have it worse.

The desire to reboot the future comes out of an acknowledgement that something has gone badly wrong, but the response it offers is misjudged. If people feel the future is broken, this isn’t a mistake or a lack of vision, it’s an accurate gut-level read on where we are. It won’t be fixed by appealing to the spirit that put man on the moon. There are times when positive thinking isn’t helpful, when it serves as a way to slip out of ‘staying with the trouble’.

In his round-up of lessons for the Green New Deal, Ben Wray argues for the importance of telling ‘a positive story’: that’s why he wants to talk about degrowth in terms of ‘better’, rather than ‘smaller’. This sits a little strangely alongside his acknowledgement of the contribution made by Extinction Rebellion, a movement which announced its arrival by dropping a banner from Westminster Bridge that just said: CLIMATE CHANGE – WE’RE FUCKED. One clue to be taken from the impact of Extinction Rebellion is that there’s a power in naming the fears we carry, making room for a conversation that isn’t framed by the pressure to sound positive, and taking action that comes from a place beyond hope.

When people have asked me about the resurgence of the Green New Deal, I’ve made encouraging noises: it’s part of the wider shift we’re seeing, I say, the change whose contours I’m tracing in these essays. In terms of the Overton Window – the space of what you can say and still get taken seriously in the world of policymakers, political technologists and the rest – I’ve wanted to see it as a stage on the way towards the conversations we need to be having. Just now, though, among all the post-election recriminations, the end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade reflections, I wonder if that’s right?

Among Bastani’s proposals for the high-tech communist future, he wants us to mine an asteroid called 16 Psyche that lies somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. As David Jonstad wrote in a review of the Swedish translation: I don’t share his vision, but at least we’re agreed that the Earth’s resources cannot support this techno-utopian trajectory.

Nor is it just Fully Automated Luxury Communism whose demand for resources is out of this world. Take one detail from Nicholas Beuret’s forensic analysis of the Green New Deal motion passed at Labour conference: ‘to meet its electric car targets global production of cobalt would need to double, the entire global production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and half of the world’s copper production would all be required.’ Remember, this is just to supply the UK.

I don’t think these are times when you can sell people a vision of ‘how not only can we save the world, but we can make all of our lives better in the process.’ There’s too much loss written into the story, too much hardship around and ahead of us, whichever path we take. I think people can smell that, whether or not they want to face it yet. It doesn’t mean we give up, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing left worth fighting for. But it may not be the kind of fight where memories of last century’s heroic future are much help. What’s called for may not be a new industrial revolution, a massive state-backed programme of infrastructure building, a grand push to make the consumption patterns of the industrial world sustainable. My guess is it looks more like a de-industrial revolution, starting piecemeal, closer to the ground. Maybe it already started, we just didn’t know what we were looking for. My guess is it looks like salvage work: not just to salvage those elements of industrial society that we get to take with us, but to salvage those ways of being human together that allow us to build the close-to-the-ground institutions, the latent commons that are already emerging among the ruins.

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Notes From Underground will return on 9 January, 2020.

Comments (17)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    I just tweeted this article with these introductory words: ” I recommend this article in strongest terms to all literate, thoughtful people” – I tagged a few targets, & added that I would have liked to have tagged many more.

    Bella Caledonia is consistently a medium where excellent writing meets thoughtful reflection and transmutes to practical, visionary, progressive exploration.

  2. Wul says:

    There is a lot of truth in what your wrote Dougald. Thank you for this article.

    None of our politicians are saying that we need to shrink our lives in order to survive. It is not a “vote winner” ( at least that’s what they think ).
    One thing about humans though is that we are great “joiner in-ers”. If our neighbours are buying more stuff, we want more stuff too. Could we be persuaded to have less stuff, use less energy, travel less, get rid of our car, have less money, if “everyone else” is doing it?

    As we shrink our consumption, there could be a huge expansion in our happiness and connectedness* with our neighbours. If we shared a car, or allotment, grocery delivery or even district heating system with our neighbours, we would be meeting many more people. Research shows that even grumpy old bastards like me feel better the more we interact with other humans.
    The graphs of “stuff ownership” V “satisfaction” seem to have an inverse relationship. We could be living far, far richer inner lives as our material lives shrink. We could be much happier. When people acquire significantly more than the average income, they start to feel less secure, rather than more secure.
    Since humans get a real buzz from helping each other, the re-housing of families displaced by sea-level rises could become our lives’ work and give us back the sense of meaning absent from so many of our lives.

    I once heard philosopher/activist/ex-monk Satish Kumar say that we need a “war on wealth” rather than a “war on poverty”.

    * Is there one word that means the opposite of “anomie” or “alienation”? I couldn’t think of one.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      “* Is there one word that means the opposite of “anomie” or “alienation”? I couldn’t think of one.”

      Though context might call for something different, the word ‘solidarity’ comes to mind.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, the ancient Greek philosophers used the word Eudaimonia to mean a state of (human) flourishing and thriving, which seems to be opposite to ‘anomie’ or ‘alienation’, if you consider their various definitions:

      I think you are on the right lines in your response. We can have richer life-filled environments including (for humans) shared public spaces (George Monbiot has written about promoting public luxury and abolishing private luxury), and richer digital lives with common access to cultural products as opposed to material goods. We can get rid of useless and harmful jobs, and devote spaces to things like communal workshops, gardens and kitchens where people can learn useful skills from each other and make (or repair) useful products for local use and consumption.

    3. Dougald Hine says:

      Wul & others –

      Thanks for pulling on this thread – and SleepingDog, thanks for bringing in ‘Eudaimonia’. As I see things, there’s a tension here, one that probably deserves an essay in its own right, when I pick up the series again in the New Year.

      On the one hand, the thinker whose influence lies behind so much of what I write, Ivan Illich, wrote about the possibilities for ‘conviviality’ – the joy of living together – that only become available when we choose to limit the dominance of industrial tools and values over our ways of living. Much of his earlier work was concerned with developing a conceptual vocabulary for naming and noticing the counterproductivity of industrial society, a way of studying the shadow side of the realities represented by economics. So, at one level, I’m on board with the basic premise that ‘we could be living far, far richer inner lives as our material lives shrink’.

      Where this gets complicated, though, is that it doesn’t cancel out what we know and what we have good grounds to fear about the consequences of the ways we have been living. Bluntly, a turn towards Illichian conviviality won’t get us off the hook of the planetary forces that have been stirred into motion by the last couple of hundred years (and especially the last fifty years) of industrial activity. There is so much loss and destruction already written into the story – so much that has already been playing out for generations, though mostly at the other end of the supply chains which have fed our ways of living – that I fear an emphasis on the possibilities for a richer inner life can become another way of avoiding the dark knowledge of our situation.

      Nicholas Beuret sums it up well in the article I quote from near the end (which I highly recommend reading in full):

      ‘We are no longer in an epoch of “fixing” climate change, nor are there very many good answers to ecological questions we face. We are in a period dominated by the politics of the least bad option.’

      For that matter, Illich himself had seen this coming, by the late eighties, when the Bruntland Report had wedded the challenge of sustainability to the impossible promises of economic development. In ‘The Shadow That The Future Throws’, he talks about novelists like Doris Lessing having ‘a sense of what is emerging in our future, of what kinds of interrelationship are possible in the rubble’ and about his friends in post-earthquake Mexico City:

      ‘I see frightening but effective new forms of self-government emerging, forms which keep government and the institutions of development out of people’s everyday affairs. Most of this new activity emerged after the earthquake in 1985 when government was paralyzed and helpless… There is something here of the taste of the gang, the ragpicker, the garbage dump dweller, but living in a very unusual way. Perhaps we can think of them as the technophagic majority of the late twentieth century. They comprise, for example, half of Chicago’s inner-city youth, defined by educators as drop-outs, two-thirds of Mexico City’s dwellers, people whose excrement is improperly treated. These are people who feed on the waste of development, the spontaneous architects of a post-modern future.’

      This is one of the places where the idea of ‘salvage work’ comes from, for me.

      Somehow we have to hold this paradox: that there are likely to be kinds of joy and solidarity and eudaimonia that we can find together along the journey on which we find ourselves, and that it is also likely to be brutal, grief-laden, painful and humiliating. And perhaps the starting point is to notice that this is already a description of the present, at least for many around us, rather than a time that lies on the far side of some defining collapse event.

    4. Alistair Taylor says:

      Aye, Wul.
      Chop wood, carry water.

      (Grumpy old bastards,

  3. John McLeod says:

    Another fine piece of writing from Dougald Hine. I hope that this series can be brought together in some way, as a book or stand-alone on-line piblication, to make it easier for readers to see how different themes are developed.

    I was struck by the decisive action (in the face of considerable opposition) taken by Roosevelt and his supporters in the 1930s, and the self-destructive interia that characterised the current political establishment. One of the many wonderful aspects of Dougald’s writing is his willingness to respond to those who comment on his essays. I was wondering if you could either offer, or point us in the right direction, to find an analysis of what made the 1930s New Deal possible. Was it just the desperation of large sectors of the population? Was it the availability of a credible (Keynesian) politicial/economic solution? Was it FDR himself? Or was it something else?

    I know this is asking a lot (but it is nearly Christmas) – but where does the italicised quote about the Chartists come from? I had always though that the Chartists were a movement dedicated to democratic parliamentary reform. You seem to be arguing that it was much deeper than that.

    What lies behind these questions is the challenge – which seems to me to thread through all the Notes from the Underground – of what we can learn from the past that might help us to begin to put right the mess we are in.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      John –

      Thanks for your kind words. One of my tasks for January will be to try to find a publisher which is willing to work with me on developing this series into a book.

      Meanwhile, to your questions. The history of the Great Depression and the New Deal is not something I’ve studied in any depth, but part of the answer must be the extremity of the economic collapse the US had been through since 1929 and its destabilising effects. It’s always hard in hindsight to grasp how close things came to history taking another path, but the likelihood of revolution of one kind or another would have seemed real. There’s a famous remark from Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, that he would give up half his wealth if he could be assured that his family could ‘enjoy the other half in peace and safety’. The existence of the USSR and the sympathetic reporting of its achievements by western journalists, at that stage, reinforced the sense that capitalism was not the only game in town. Not to mention events in Germany – and even Sweden, which first flickered onto the political imagination of the wider world in 1936, with Marquis Childs’ book ‘The Middle Way’.

      The passage that starts with the Chartists is quoted from Seabrook & Blackwell, ‘The Revolt Against Change’. Coming back to it as I was writing this piece, I had the same thought as you – that I don’t actually know what elements of Chartism would mark it as envisaging ‘a reversal or dismantling of industrial society’. (I have an idea to interview Jeremy Seabrook, so if that happens, I will ask him if he can expand on this.) Anyway, I wouldn’t want to rest too much on making a specific claim about the Chartists – but there’s a larger story which I would put weight on, about the ‘war against subsistence’ (Illich’s term) which preceded the industrial settlement in which the left as we have known it was born, and which then got swept under the carpet of history. The numbers of troops mobilised against the Luddites in four counties of England in 1811-12 give a sense of the scale of this earlier struggle. As for the idea that the 1840s might be the key moment in the establishment of the new settlement, there’s an interesting echo of this in Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation’, where he writes that the 1840s marked the point at which ‘business’ became something mundane and fixed, rather than a field of intellectual as well as financial speculation: ‘Henceforth businessmen imagined they knew what forms their activities should take; they rarely inquired into the nature of money before founding a bank.’ Similarly, in ‘The Social Construction of Energy’, Illich points to the second quarter of the 19th century as the critical moment in the consolidation of modern industrial society and the naturalisation of its assumptions. Echoing Eliot’s blend of vagueness and conviction, we might say ‘something happened’ in the second quarter of the 19th century ‘from which we have never recovered’.

      1. Alistair Taylor says:

        Aah, if only Joseph Kennedy had come out and said that he would give all of his wealth away to ensure peace and safety…
        Fast forward to today, and there is that moron Trump pushing Space Force as the new war-fighting game.

        Anyway, off to ski some powder before it gets totally shredded by the hordes.
        Thanks for the essays, Dougald. Stimulating and thought-provoking, You are very well read and a deep thinker. Look forward to reading more.

      2. John McLeod says:

        Thanks for this response, with many important threads to be followed up. Whatever happened in the mid-1800s, it is perhaps significant that one of the things that followed was the emergence of psychology and psychoanalysis – which were to become increasingly significant aspects of the new cultural order. Connections have also been made between Roosevelt’s New Deal and the subsequent emergence of the ideas of Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists.

        For me, a fascinating aspect of your writing is how you worry away to find the right language for talking about how best to describe the work that needs to be done to deal with the mess we have made. I can see the merits in ‘salvaging’, but would also like to suggest ‘repairing’. On a day to day basis, all of us – individuals, organisations, governments – need to be thinking about what we can do to not only stop the destruction of nature, but to take action to repair it, bit by bit.

        1. Dougald Hine says:

          John –

          Glad you’re enjoying the series and the conversations it starts. And thank you for bringing in the language of ‘repair’. My friend and co-conspirator Duncan McLaren has written and spoken enthusiastically about its importance as a concept as we find our ways through this mess. It touches on the idea of restorative justice, another powerful thread. And personally, as a writer and speaker, I’ve long identified with the Ancient Greek role of the ‘rhapsode’, the bard or oral storyteller, literally the one who ‘stitches together songs’, with that suggestion of mending and making do, working with the materials which come to hand, rather than starting with a blank sheet.

      3. Dougald Hine says:

        John –

        In case you’re still keeping up with comments on this post, I just came across another reference that sheds light on the Seabrook quote about the Chartists. In Mark Burton’s recent paper, ‘Degrowth: the realistic alternative for Labour’, he quotes Raymond Williams distinguishing two strands within the tradition of English socialism, one that seeks a bigger share of the pie of industrial production, the other which resists the reduction of life to commodity relations. Here’s Burton’s summary of what Williams says about the latter strand:

        “These ideas and struggles were present from the earliest stirrings of capitalism (the Diggers and related groups) through its maturation (for example, aspects of Chartism with its Land Plan and self-help mutual institutions, the Socialist League, associated with Morris’s Marxist and aesthetic critique of industrial society, or the Clarion Club, with its cycle excursions linking socialism and the countryside and its range of alternative cultural institutions). It never was entirely eclipsed.”

        I’ll admit, I haven’t read The Country and the City, which is the book Burton is referencing. But ‘entirely’ is doing a lot of work in that last sentence – and the historical examples fit with Seabrook’s account of the Chartists representing the last moment at which this was a central rather than a marginal position within the politics of the left. (Seabrook may well have been writing under the influence of Williams, so to speak.)

        Here’s the link to the paper, relevant to other parts of the discussion here:

  4. Christopher Silver says:

    I think the fundamental question here is how liberal democracy can mobilise people (outside of wartime) to forego a higher standard of living in response to crisis/for a broader ethical goal. There isn’t much precedent for this that can be cited as successful in a democratic context (in some ways Heath’s three day week is the most recent precedent in the UK). Assuming that these basic structures will not collapse over the coming decade – a popular politics which says, ‘less is more’ – seems feasible.

    But I think the emphasis needs to be on the provision of public goods – e.g mobility – that have always been areas of market failure. The state-capitalism that created the great car economy pursued a long-term strategic vision, and sold this to people as an emancipatory one – but the inadequate term here, and in your concluding paragraph, is the verb ‘to sell’. The language needs to shift more rapidly towards talk of rights held in common and how these can be defended and made resilient. This is where the GND v Degrowth debate (which has been useful up to a point) becomes a false dichotomy. E.g: free public transport requires degrowth/salvage in certain key parts of manufacturing supply chains *and* major infrastructure investment. The salient point ought to be that it will create greater mobility for more people and can be “sold” as such. The difficulty lies in hoping that elements of capital will come along for the ride. For FDR, this wasn’t an issue – his goal was explicit in its desire to find new solutions to reform/preserve the existing system: the profit-motive, so inadequate in the current context, was curtailed but never threatened.

    A popular language which calls for privileging social reproduction over consumption is within our grasp. Developing a critical mass of understanding about that goal as a unifying strategic vision is more likely to provide a useful map ahead than allowing the polarities of techno-utopianism and eco-pessimism to define the debate.

    1. Hi Christopher – thanks for this.

      When you say: “This is where the GND v Degrowth debate (which has been useful up to a point) becomes a false dichotomy. E.g: free public transport requires degrowth/salvage in certain key parts of manufacturing supply chains *and* major infrastructure investment” – I agree.

      But its almost like you need to have three levels:

      1. a GND element for the creation of key infrastructure items (Passivhaus homes, intense public transport, and ambitious zero carbon heating schemes)
      2. a grassroots Cuban style food revolution (which actually doesn’t need technology or infrastructure)
      3. a new ethic of degrowth and what Chris Erskine has called radical relinquishment (“Reorientation of life – reimagining all of life away from coercion, competition and consumption towards compassionate solidarity. This will require breaking the drivenness of acquisitions – radical relinquishment.”)

      Is this possible? I dont know.
      Is this essential. Looks like it is absolutely.

      1. Dougald Hine says:

        Christopher & Mike –

        Thanks for these great comments, which I’ve come to belatedly, having been offline for a couple of weeks.

        I like those three levels very much. They feel like a thought worth expanding on, a back-of-an-envelope map that could be really helpful.

        And I agree about the danger of unhelpfully polarised debates. I’ve not engaged closely with the degrowth movement up to now, although as I’ve been writing this series, the Hickel/Kallis paper has become a key reference point. As I hinted at in #2, my own grounding is in the work of Illich and his friends, which clearly influences contemporary degrowth thinking, but leads in other directions, as well. In writing about the GND, though, I found my attitude hardening as I learned more. Nicholas Beuret’s article, in particular, pulled me up – and I recommend reading it in full – as he writes, near the end: “We need to be clear however, that insofar as the Green New Deal isn’t ‘the’ solution, it’s also not a stepping stone to one.” Yet he goes on to add:

        “Even though the Green New Deal isn’t the solution, this doesn’t justify ignoring or opposing it. The Green New Deal is both a policy and a tendency. As a policy, it is a raft of measures that can be engaged with or fought against, in the interest of moving it in a more positive direction. As a tendency, it needs to be engaged with in order to shape what form it takes but also in order to create something else, something that takes us beyond the limitations of efforts to reform the system we have and build something that ensures a rich and abundant life for all of us and all life in general.”

        I’m going to shift gears a little in the next part of the series, so it will be a while before I get back to the question of “what is to be done” – but I’m glad to have sparked this bit of discussion and I hope it continues.

  5. Tim says:

    At the point in your piece where you struggle with the idea of picking sides I immediately thought of Latour. Then, as if conjured, he appeared. I find Latour’s concept of the “Earthbound” to be a provocative framing of the idea of choosing sides: “Some are readying themselves to live as Earthbound in the Anthropocene; others decided to remain as Humans in the Holocene.” Which is the Left and which is the Right? I’m not sure it matters.

    If you ascribe to the conceptual idea of the Earthbound people, I think we have a lot to learn from indigenous folks who have for millennia understood and lived by the tenets of right relations with the planet. Here in the US, indigenous communities also have a lot to teach us about what it is to live in a post-apocalyptic society because they’ve been living in one for the past few hundred years. And so I’ve started to pay much closer attention to indigenous feminism, and have been trying to learn about the nuances of “buen vivir” from the Zapatistas (though admittedly even this phrasing is too Western, too rooted in notions of individualistic wellbeing or welfare). And speaking of making impossible things happen, I’ve found Nick Estes’s recent book, _Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance_, to be particularly thought provoking when it comes to ideas of decolonization, environmental justice, and anti-capitalism. There are more than whispers around us to help guide us where we need to be going if we’d only tune our receivers to hear them.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Tim –

      Thanks for this. I find Latour very curious – though I’m also conscious of what a big and contested figure he seems to be in various worlds that I’m only an occasional visitor to, and of how much of his work I haven’t read. But curious because there were passages in Down To Earth that I could have written myself (he says, modestly!) and there were passages that made me want to throw it across the room in exasperation, and it’s not often I get both those effects from one short book. To give one example of the kind of thing that exasperates me, I read a recent interview in which he talks enthusiastically about the earth sciences being ‘at a Christopher Columbus moment’, which felt a remarkably tone-deaf turn of phrase for anyone bringing their thinking into dialogue with Earthbound people. But I should probably read some more!

      Anyway, based on your comment, I think you may appreciate where I’m going in tomorrow’s essay, as we enter the second part of this series.

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