A final word …

wellsharp has covered a lot of ground since November 2007, summarising and reflecting upon the work of many insightful people. We’ve learned a lot from writing wellsharp; hopefully it provides some interesting food for thought for you too.

But it’s time for a break. We’d like to bring things to a close* in a suitable manner with a few appropriate words:

Ask the powerful five questions:

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How can we get rid of you?

Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it – including you and me, here and now.

Tony Benn (2005) quoted at http://www.bennites.com/

we find that the prime human obligation is to act fearlessly and publicly in accordance with one’s beliefs; that one should withdraw cooperation from destructive institutions; that this should be done without violence …; that means are more important than ends; that crimes shouldn’t be committed today for the sake of a better world tomorrow; that violence brutalizes the user as well as his victim; that the value of action lies in the direct benefit it brings society; that action is usually best aimed first at one’s immediate surroundings, and only later at more distant goals; that winning state power, if necessary at all, is a secondary goal; that freedom “begins with myself” … is oriented to love of truth, and only then discovers what it hates and must oppose; and that state power not only should but actually does depend on the consent of the governed.

Jonathan Schell (2003)The unconquerable world: Power, non-violence and the will of the people. New York: Metropolitan Books. p.201.

* Never say never, of course – if we have something burning to say, or if circumstances change, we may post again, but it isn’t in our plans for the foreseeable future.

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Building social capacity – not social capital

Whether it’s the need for social economy, the importance of civil society, the potential benefits of deliberative democracy, the means to address climate change, or the idea of ecological citizenship, we consistently find a common theme at the root of what we are talking about.

That common theme is the need to build social capacity.

You might be familiar with another very widely used term that I could have chosen to use ­– ‘social capital’. Indeed, Barry and I have used this phrase a couple of times, but not extensively. We have largely (if instinctively) avoided the phrase ‘social capital,’ I think, because there are serious problems with it, both in the vocabulary and in the way the concept is understood.

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Organisation and action for social change

Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant commentary on a biography of Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German socialist revolutionary murdered in Berlin in 1919. I came across it recently in a collection of Arendt’s essays, and I just want to note a couple of points which really stand out for me.

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Questions for activists

I recently checked out the Thwink.org website again. Since David first wrote about their work, they have continued to develop their ideas. They have some good ones too. Sometimes I find the approach a bit too simplistically rationalist, but there’s no doubt they are thinking about social change, asking “why have we not achieved the changes we’ve been struggling for?”, and trying to come up with better methods.

Activists are usually busy people. The word itself is based on the root “action”. Gandhi, one of the world’s greatest non-violent activists, stressed the vital importance of action – even going so far as to argue that violent action is better than passivity. Yet Ghandi’s activism was never unthinking. It was based on serious efforts at self-understanding and self-control, and rooted in a deeply thought out theory of power, which lead logically to non-violent strategies for social change.
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The rebirth of social democracy

In 2006 Clive Hamilton wrote an obituary on the “Death of social democracy.” His view was that

sustained increases in living standards for the great bulk of working people have so transformed social conditions as to render social democracy redundant as a political ideology. (p.7)

Certainly, (nominal) social democrats such as Paul Keating, Helen Clark, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder seemed to agree: their ‘Third Way’ economic policies had far more in common with the New Right than the Old Left.

Yet, the darkest hour for (real) social democrats was just before the dawn. By mid-2008, a financial crisis generally regarded as the worst since the 1930s had gripped the global economy. Intervention became essential, at least for the welfare of corporations, as taxpayers fronted with enormous bailouts for businesses (banks in particular) which were “too big to fail”. The economies of smaller European nations, which had wholehearted embraced the call to “enrichissez vous” at the expense of all else, were prostrate. The miracle of neoliberalism was shown to be nothing more than a brief mirage.

According to Tony Judt, the best possible response to this economic meltdown is the rebirth of social democracy.

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Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

In his splendidly provocative Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973) describes the pursuit of growth as a general affliction of industrial society. He writes that “While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat, nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania” (p.8). His conclusion is that

society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. (p.10)

The analysis of the ‘growth mania’ is taken further by Herman Daly (1974) in “Steady-State Economics versus Growthmania” (pdf here). Daly decries the growth orthodoxy, the desire for “growth forever and the more the better,” calling it “a rigorous exercise in wishful thinking” (p.154).

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The Third Sector holds the key to successful action on climate change

Stephen Hale is a former environmental policy adviser to the UK government from 2002-2006 who now directs the think tank Green Alliance. In his 2010 paper on “The new politics of climate change”, Hale articulates the reasons for the present failure to take meaningful action on climate change. Based on that analysis of failure, he explains how a successful response climate change might still be achieved.

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