Author Archives: parker62

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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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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Warning! Beware the toxic textbooks!

What can we do about the toxic textbooks that infest our education systems? How can we counter the pervasive neoliberal ideology which masquerades as ‘objective knowledge’?

I’m not a fan of book burning for any cause. A healthy dose of critical thinking is all that’s required. To help people along the way, here’s a handy warning you can spread generously around university libraries …

Warning!

Source: Toxic Textbooks Facebook Group

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The new republicanism, part 2: The green republic

As I described in my previous post, republicanism is founded on key concepts such as public politics and self-government. In an article published in The Good Society in 2008, John Barry notes that this “language of civic republicanism has been largely absent from debates within green politics” and from discussions of the politics of sustainability (p.5). In his article, Barry sets out to do something about that omission.

Drawing on ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Barry notes that “humans’ relative weakness, our vulnerability to natural dangers, makes us not just dependent creatures, but interdependent.” The republic, he continues, is therefore founded on the desire to build “an enduring home for human lives in a world ruled by contingency and filled with potentially hostile agents, both human and non-human.” This is in stark contrast to the widely accepted individualistic and “optimistic view of humans’ ability to transcend their limits” (p.6).

Thus, in many respects, the republican understanding of the human condition is much the same as the green understanding. Republicanism has both a realistic understanding of “human’s complex relations of dependence on natural forces outside our control” and an appreciation of the importance of sustainable living (p.6).

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The new republicanism, part 1

The meaning of republicanism is often reduced to an argument over the means of acquiring heads of state: aristocratic inheritance or election? Conversations and debates in Britain and nations with historic ties to Britain via empire and mass migration, such as New Zealand and Australia, are typical in this regard. In the public arena, republicanism is anti-monarchism and little else.

In fact, republicanism is very much more than this one-dimensional debate might suggest. Drawn from a tradition going back to classical Greece and Rome, the foundational notions of republicanism – public politics and self-government – underpinned the struggle against feudalism and absolute monarchy, and were brought to the fore in the works of Rousseau, Paine and many others.

A recent resurgence of interest in these ideals has become known as neo-republicanism. An article by Richard Dagger (2006) provides a useful summary of four important ingredients of a 21st century republic: political equality, freedom as self-government, deliberative politics, and civic virtue.

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Facing up to the climate crisis: despair, acceptance, action

Anyone who is paying attention knows what’s going on. We have the evidence of an inexorable increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. We are familiar with the many indications of changing climate and a warming planet. We see widespread denial, some active but most of it passive. And we have witnessed the repeated failure of nations to take any significant action, unilaterally or collectively. Given these circumstances, is there any cause for hope?

Clive Hamilton believes not:

clinging to hopefulness becomes a means of forestalling the truth. Sooner or later we must respond, and that means allowing ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, in short to grieve.

What we must grieve for is the future humanity has lost or, rather, methodically destroyed through our own handiwork. In his grimly titled Requiem for a species, Hamilton faces up to this grief. His concern is to get us to consider how we can best respond to the grief and despair brought on by climate change. He asks, how should we adjust to a future that will be so different from that which we have come to expect?

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Deliberative democracy, green society

Over the past 30 years or so, green political thinkers have offered us a variety of approaches to dealing with the ecological crisis. These proposals range from a deeply unattractive authoritarianism (eg from Garrett Hardin) to an appealing but ultimately utopian anarchism (eg from Murray Bookchin). Both of these options reject the possibility of a liberal democratic state reorganising itself sufficiently in order to cope with the ecological crisis. Present circumstances might bear out that analysis.

But since authoritarianism and anarchism, for very different reasons, seem outrageous and/or impossible propositions to most of us, are we, therefore, forced to fall back on liberal democracy as the only possible framework for a green society? Or there are other green alternatives beyond authoritarianism and anarchism?

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