The scale of what is facing the world is enormous. Our planet is dying. Dying in the sense that its life-forms and life processes are being profoundly and systematically degraded. To address this we need an extraordinary change. We need to initiate a new cultural age – what Thomas Berry described as the Ecological Age. This is the only response possible to living in the Anthropocene.
The problem is that the governments in COP21 are thinking within the current set of assumptions and ideologies. They still are trying to make ‘saving the planet’ compatible with an economic growth paradigm. They still see the planet as an object external to humanity.
Let us consider what a truly radical COP21 might look like.
- We would recognise that we have entered the Anthropocene
- We would recognise Gaia as a subject to whom we must learn to relate
- We would recognise Gaia and the Universe as our primary teachers
- We would acknowledge the need for a new mode of human presence in Gaia which would affect and change all of our cultural, institutional systems
- We would start by ensuring in COP21 that:
i. The interests of non-human life-forms are represented and acknowledged
ii. The interests of future human generations are represented and acknowledged
iii. The wisdoms of indigenous cultures, not just nation states, are represented and acknowledged.
Creating structures to achieve the above three actions are possible with the requisite commitment and engagement. Then COP21 would truly be a Gaian gathering.
It appears that the Corrib gas development is close to completion. What it requires is Ministerial approval for production to begin. The final moment of truth for this project has arrived.
In its long and disturbing history many aspects of this project have given cause for concern. These include:
- The inadequacies of the planning system
- The fragmented nature of the consents and approvals regime covering projects of this scale
- The failure to integrate the principle of community consent into the criteria for developing large-scale infrastructural projects
- The difficulty in expressing dissent from dominant versions of what constitutes ‘development’
There are undoubtedly many other issues as well which people on different sides of the Corrib gas debate would identify. But one crucial issue has remained largely invisible. Should Ireland be exploiting any fossil fuel reserves whatever in the current context of ecological emergency and climate change peril?
That this is not a live question is testimony to the weakness of environmental politics in Ireland and the extent of the real-world denial characterising our governing and media establishments.
A number of brief points can be raised in support of the view that we should step away from any development of indigenous fossil fuels. Let me note a few.
First, we do not need to do so. The world is awash with sufficient reserves. No further developments are required unless the global ‘community’ wishes to plunge into a catastrophic climate change event.
Second, the one rationale for exploiting ‘natural’ gas is as a transition fuel away from coal to renewable sources of energy. This is not the case in Ireland.
Third, our energy policy (indeed our policy in pretty much everything) needs to be framed within the reality of a world undergoing rapid, anthropogenic climate change. How far climate change will go we do not know. Whether it will progressively continue or shift suddenly into new climatic states we do not know either. But the reality of rapid climate change is not a matter of belief. It is fact. We must recognise it and live within it and act to at least mitigate its worst effects. In part, this means a radical, concerted reduction in fossil fuel use. This is not simply an economic or political issue. It is a profoundly ethical one.
Finally, it can be helpful to recognise that we are now living within a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This is one in which human activity is significantly altering the conditions of life on the planet. We are the single greatest agent of planetary change. With this recognition should come the acknowledgement that we are now responsible for the vitality of the Earth. Policies and modes of life appropriate for the preceding Holocene are no longer so for our time. Human welfare and flourishing is now utterly entangled with the welfare of the wider planet.
Given all of this, what should we as a small island State do? What is our moral duty? Does our notion of responsibility extend outwards from us to include all of those, human and non-human, who share this planet and all of those yet to be born? We are faced in this time with the choice to burn off our fossil fuel reserves or to leave them in the ground as an act of ecological investment in the future. What shall we do?
What we know is that if the world is to contain global warming to no greater than 2 degrees Celsius (itself an uncertain safe boundary) we need to leave at least two thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground and not exploit them (Nature January 2015). Within this broader requirement, at least half of all known ‘natural’ gas reserves need to be left un-used. No further discoveries can be exploited whatever.
That is pretty stark but brutally clear. The question is how seriously we wish to take our global responsibility. Will we attend the upcoming Paris Climate talks with firm decisions that signal the abandonment of our carbon fixation? Or will it be business as usual, the fantasy politics that we can go on fundamentally altering the environment about us and nothing of consequence will happen?
Whatever we do, Minister White should recognise the enormity of the decision he is making and how that decision will be another contribution to the slow but steady loss of our shared Earth. The development of Corrib gas is no triumph for anyone. It is a further defeat for everyone.
We are living in a new time. A new world has emerged. Like many things that are new on such a scale it is at once frightening, disturbing, uncomfortable. We have emerged from the geological epoch of the Holocene into a new epoch designated as the Anthropocene.[i] This notion of the Anthropocene refers to a profound realisation that human aggregate activity is now the single most decisive force shaping the planet. We have become the most significant geological agent acting on the Earth. For better or worse we have broken through a certain limit and possess now the power to determine the biosphere of the planet.
In the Anthropocene the old simplicities are gone. We are no longer human subjects acting upon an objective nature ‘outside’ us. Nature and human are now bound together. Free nature is over. Free humanity is over. They are relics of the Holocene. In our new age, Earth and Human are entangled irrevocably together. Welcome to the era of Earth-bound responsibility! The assumptions, the myths, the illusions of the Holocene no longer apply.
This recognition of a new epoch is not the result of argument or claim or campaign. It is not a question of belief, unless one thinks one must believe in reality itself. The new age is grounded in a measurable and observable set of facts, facts on such a scale as to be beyond questions of faith. The difficulty in recognising the new epoch is therefore not one of evidence. Rather, the challenge before us is that the vast panoply of institutions, practices, ideologies and cultures which structure human meaning and behaviour are the product of the Holocene. Our dominant and still prevailing worldview is rooted in the epoch of climate stability and security where humans were a discrete species inhabiting the objective Earth as free subjects.
This no longer applies. The Holocene gave rise to all the great civilisations of human culture, the philosophies, the great religions. How can we possibly re-think all of this in the little time that epochal change offers us to adjust and adapt? Because what is at stake could not be clearer. Either we adapt to the reality of the Anthropocene or we collapse into the perils of extinction as yet another mal-adaptive life-form.
In this brief paper, which serves only as an introduction to a more comprehensive treatment, I will sketch in summary terms the implications of living in the Anthropocene. Knowing where we are is one of the most basic life-skills for dwelling on planet Earth. The challenge is to re-think and re-inhabit our planet. This challenge is for everyone even for those who consider themselves ’right’ on the environmental question. Environmentalism too must now radically change. The Anthropocene will sweep all of the Holocene before it including our notions of environmentalism and that old chestnut of comfort ‘sustainability’.
From Holocene to Anthropocene – a series of sketches
Before proceeding with my potted sketches (literally) it might be wise to outline some basic definitions. Relying, as one tends to do today, on Wikipedia the Holocene can be defined as:
… the geological epoch that began after the Pleistocene at approximately 11,700 years BP and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period. Its name comes from the Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent”. It has been identified with the current warm period, known as MIS 1, and can be considered an interglacial in the current ice age based on that evidence. The Holocene also encompasses the growth and impacts of the human species worldwide, including all its written history, development of major civilizations, and overall significant transition toward urban living in the present.
The Anthropocene is defined as:
… a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth‘s ecosystems. The term – which appears to have been used by Russian scientists as early as the 1960s to refer to the Quaternary, the most recent geological Period – was coined with a different sense in the 1980s by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and has been widely popularized by atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behaviour on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch for its lithosphere. As of April 2015, the term has not been adopted formally as part of the official nomenclature of the geological field of study.
Less detached definitions of the Anthropocene include the following:
A period marked by a regime change in the activity of industrial societies which began at the turn of the nineteenth century and which has caused global disruptions in the Earth System on a scale unprecedented in human history: climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution of the sea, land and air, resources depredation, land cover denudation, radical transformation of the ecumene, among others. These changes command a major realignment of our consciousness and worldviews, and call for different ways to inhabit the Earth.[ii]
Crucial to the identification of the Anthropocene is determining whether there is an objective, measurable impact on the planet, especially on its life-forms, which may be discoverable by scientists many centuries, indeed, millennia from today. Many scholars of this topic suggest that the detonation of test nuclear devices beginning in 1945 is precisely that – a clear marker of a new order of impact on the Earth’s very structure of life which will be forever present as an observable impact on the geological and biological record.
As noted in the definition above, the official, academic geological approval of this terminology is not yet achieved. That may occur in 2016 or not. Nonetheless, the heuristic and rhetorical potency of the Anthropocene has already had a significant impact on a raft of social sciences where it has become central concepts for theorists in history, sociology, anthropology, geography and philosophy.[iii] It is not I hope too reckless a claim to suggest that the intellectual and conceptual space opened up by the identification of the Anthropocene is having a major innovative impact on the social sciences generally permitting theory to finally step beyond the modern and ‘post-modern’ epistemes of the 20th century. This new frame may also offer a decisive shift in our understanding of the ‘environment’ as merely something ‘out there which surrounds us’ and of environmentalism as a social and political movement.
The justification (at least within social science terms) for the Anthropocene may be best glimpsed in terms of whether something truly new has happened. If one may present cultural history in very crude and linear terms then a number of key human-nature movements can be discerned, at least within the Western historical trajectory. This after all is the trajectory that gave rise to modernity and has brought us to the impasse we presently find ourselves in.
The first movement within Indo-European culture was likely to have been that of animism – the notion of the Earth and ‘nature’ as teeming with multiple points of consciousness. The sensibility that arose seems to be one of either communing with, or placating, these nodes of spirit manifested within animate and inanimate forms of life.
The Judeo-Christian movement represented a significant change. Here was emphasised the notion of the human as ‘created’ by a supernatural being who is external to nature and Earth. The human stands apart from the rest of creation – present but absent, image of God but condemned to struggle within the brutal requirements of life on Earth.
The image here is of the human separate and alienated from the Earth – a being destined ultimately for an unworldly heaven rather than an Earthling.
It is little wonder that this sensibility led inevitably to anthropocentrism – the Universe and the Earth seen in terms of their value to the human, the human as superior to, and above, brute, inanimate creation. The Cartesian revolution of the early 17th Century further augmented this view of human consciousness trumping mindless matter – cogitans above extensa.
The license this gave to the human permitted the emergence of industrialism and capitalism. The Earth was now mere resource, mere empty space to be shaped and conquered and utilised for human development and progress. The empty formlessness of nature required human agency and expansion to give it meaning and value.
By the second half of the 20th Century it became clear to many that nature had in fact limits. Resources were in fact finite. Pollution could only go so far in terms of the planet’s carrying capacity. Human activity had to be at least tempered, rendered in the new jargon ‘sustainable’. Environmentalism as a modern sensibility was born.
For many, indeed most, this remains the sensibility of today. We are caught in a world of exploitative limits. These limits are imposing stresses on us. We are told we merely need new policies and approaches. This sensibility still sees the human as subject and agent, confronting a nature external to us but affected by us. We exist in a relationship with nature. Our task is merely to learn to relate better.
But now, alas, we have indeed come to the end of this world. The new world begins with the recognition that nature as object, as free, as autonomous, is over. The line was crossed. There is no nature outside the human.[iv] There is no human outside nature. Our impact is such that nature is us, is being fashioned by us. Rather than being inert recipients of our action, the Earth (Gaia) has stirred and is also now active, an agent in its own right, giving us feedback, responses, messages that we must receive. We are tied together now. There is no gap between us. The old human sensibility of the Holocene is no longer adequate. A new mode of being human is required, one that is profoundly responsible for all it does, but must be profoundly attentive to the new agent stirring and moving all around us – the Earth itself. We have entered the inter-subjective, multi-agential Anthropocene world. Shall we be terrified or exhilarated?
Birth of the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene began in a clear moment when human impact started to shape the planet’s very life-forms in a manner greater than any other discernible force or in a manner quicker and sharper than other agents. For our purposes now we can leave the argument to one side as to when this can be dated. Three key facts determine that unwittingly, unintentionally, we have fallen into a new world.
- The planet, especially its bio-diversity, has been / is profoundly shaped by human behaviour – it is the single biggest force presently at play;
- Climate change is occurring;
- There is an absolute limit to economic growth.
The data on human global impact is simply staggering.[v] Bio-diversity, land use, water use, resource use, urbanisation, and so on, have been utterly altered by human behaviour. Almost nowhere lies outside the realm of human impact. Barely any life-form exists without the chemical markers of human activity. We are not one species among many. We are of a different order altogether.
Though the loss of bio-diversity is the largest single impact, our greatest recognition of the effect of human behaviour is possibly in climate change. Once this was a theory. Then a distinct possibility. Now it is our reality. It is underway. There is no credible scientific doubt. The only issue is how far it proceeds and how quickly. Will our climate alter in a continuous progression or tip suddenly into a new climatic steady-state? We do not know. Our models tell us one thing. The paleo-climate record tells us something else.
The point though is that climate (all our accumulated weather events over space and time) is no longer ‘natural’. It is us. We have made it like this. But altering climate is not simply changing weather patterns. Climate is nature, nature is culture. When the rains fall, where the rains fall, if the rains fall, determine the entire movements of civilisation.
The apparently safely inanimate background of climate and nature has stirred, has become animate. It addresses us, demands response. It is no longer reliable, predictable, secure. We have entered a world of inter-agency between the human and the non-human Earth. This is the Anthropocene. From once believing ourselves humans free upon a stable nature to do as we wish we find ourselves newly earth-bound, tied into the Earth itself, as part of it.
What is clear is that we cannot go on as before. The old mode of living, the mode developed in the Holocene, is no longer possible. Business as usual is not an option. At its most simple level our adherence to the goal of perpetual economic growth is rendered dysfunctional and literally impossible. Growth simply cannot be the paradigm for development in the Anthropocene. If U.S. standards of consumption were globalised then five separate Earths would be required to support it. But there is only one Earth. It just cannot be. We have hit the limit of the possible within the economic growth model. Capitalism has no place now other than as destroyer of a world.
Implications of the Anthropocene
Epochal shifts are extraordinary times. They are full of possibility. They are full of danger. Everything is possible. Nothing is guaranteed. The objectivity underlying the emergence of the Anthropocene does not nevertheless deliver us automatically into new modes of presence on the Earth, new forms of inter-species and human justice. Politics endures. Arguments continue. Options remain. Choices tantalise. In short, the Anthropocene could lead us to deliverance or doom.
The objective realisation of human-Earth entanglement and the limits that necessarily follow from that do not in themselves resolve matters. We remain beings who choose. Our choices are set by our perceptions of self-interest, by the immense inequalities and environmental injustices that exist among us and by the spontaneous framings of meaning and reality configured by our ideological perspectives. We cannot escape all of this. We cannot avoid the messiness of politics and argument. Human responsibility for our precipitation into the Anthropocene is not evenly distributed. The Western capitalist world is largely where responsibility lies and even there the fingers of judgement must point to those in the socio-economic upper tiers.
But what are we to do? How shall we fashion a civilisation fit for the Anthropocene when all of our Western cultural references and our institutions and practices are products of the Holocene. Even our dissenting discourses of Marxism, Feminism and Environmentalism are rooted in a Holocene conceptual framework whereby we perceive a human subjectivity significantly cut off from nature’s inert objectivity.
Everything is possible. Authoritarian Fascism all the way to new modes of intra-human and human- Earth solidarity and co-living lie open. But some things are clear. Some things must happen if extinction of the human project on Earth is to be avoided. Three immediate implications at least seem apparent.
- We need to think!
- We need to take the responsibility of being in the Anthropocene
- We need to recognise that unlimited economic growth (i.e. Capitalism) is no longer possible as a sensible model for development
The notion that we need to think may seem banal. We live in a culture which values feeling, emotion, expression. Fast thought is all about us in soundbites, power-point slides, net-based summaries. It seems to me that we must return to thought, recover our innate human capacity to think our way out of challenge. Deep thinking is needed in a world where our sense of deep history is to be recovered or discovered. Human history begins in the depths of evolutionary time when the first eye emerged, the first ear, the first mammal limb, the first of each thing that makes us what we are. Our thinking is what enables us to inhabit reality – the world as it really is – and see past the murky atmosphere of symbolic and ideological interpellation. Here is the real task for a renewed education in the Anthropocene, one which prepares us to be positive participants in the cosmogenesis of Human-Earth reality rather than the outdated late-Holocene agitation of being fit for capitalist market engagement.
If the Anthropocene serves as a new frame within which to view and construct social modes of presence then we must accept our collective responsibility for our human status as geological drivers of our planet. It is as it is. This is our fate, our lot, what modernity with its striving for rationality, progress, development, wealth, anthropocentrism has bequeathed to us. Most of humanity derived limited benefit from the great turmoils of modernity. The injustice is clear. But we must fashion together a way of inhabiting the Earth as it is. The challenge of changing our energy systems, our food systems, our consumption systems, our transportation systems, and so on are immense. We do so while the vast majority of humanity believe themselves inhabitants of the Holocene. The vast majority of humans act, behave and believe as if the Holocene stability was still holding sway. Even while it slips away from them and the Earth cries of the birthing Anthropocene sound all about us they carry on.
We occupy different worlds. The inhabitants of the Ptolemaic cosmos stood eyeball to eyeball with those of the Copernican. Though one held absolute power and dominated symbolic space the other inhabitants were standing on the actual world of orbit and motion. The truth of the Earth is not to be denied. It lies beyond the reach of human symbolisation and ideology.
The great political fault-line is not as the late politics of the Holocene imagine, that is between the economics of austerity versus the economics of Keynesian expansion. Rather it is between the adherents of economic growth (which include both right and left) and those who realise we must move beyond growth, beyond capitalism and its strange alter of State communism. Neither will serve in the Anthopocene. Living in the Anthropocene is living within planetary limits. We are finally recognisably Earthbound. The new human subject is no longer in nature – they are nature. Nature is no longer nature – it is indelibly become humanised. Anthropos is the new agent of geostory. As argued above this does not mean no politics – it just means that politics starts from here.
New thoughts, new perceptions are often strange at first. They seem peculiar, unclear. They don’t fit in with our expectations, our assumptions. The old certainties which formed the background stability of human political and economic life are faltering. Something new is taking place. Our culture, our ideologies, our practices remain centred in a Holocene world that has given way to a new epoch. While there is but one world of course two human modes of inhabiting that world now confront each other. As social theorist Bruno Latour has said: ‘There is indeed a war for the definition and control of the Earth: a war that pits – to be a little dramatic – Humans living in the Holocene against Earthbound living in the Anthropocene’.[vi] In one we thought we were above the world, superior to it. In the other, we have stumbled to the recognition that there are necessary limits, that we must inhabit the world within constraints required by the Earth itself.
For those Earthbound in the Anthropocene our fellow humans of the Holocene appear to be inhabitants of a strange, mythical, unreal place. A bizarre parallel world where fossil fuels are developed, where consumption bewitches, where species die. Language itself in the Holocene seems devoid of content. ‘Development’, ‘progress’, ‘sustainability’, the ‘environment’ sound hollow and disconnected, spoken by confused subjects seeking safe purchase in a diminishing fantasia version of the planet. We need a new language, a new way of speaking, a new way of articulating our human-Earth inter-subjectivity. We cannot go back to pre-modern sensibilities for this. That too is a false turn. We are inescapably the beings of modernity. But our sciences, natural and social, need to fashion Anthropocentric resonance. We need deep history, deep sociology, deep economy – that is, frameworks of meaning that situate the human within far wider processes of evolution and life.
[i] The official confirmation of this awaits the 2016 meeting of the Geological Society of London.
[iii] See for example Chakrabarty, R. (2009), The climate of history: four theses. Critical Enquiry 35 (2): 197-222.
[iv] McKibben, B. (1989), The End of Nature. New York: Random House.
[v] See, for example, Steffen W. et al (2004), Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer-Verlag.
[vi] Latour, B. (2015), Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene (pp. 145-155), in Clive Hamiliton et al (eds) The Anthropocene and the Global Environment Crisis – Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch. London: Routledge.
The current Banking Enquiry reveals well the intellectual limits of current thinking. It exposes once more the dominance of the hegemonic discourse of capitalism and neo-liberalism. How is this shown?
It doesn’t strike anyone that the economic and financial crisis was caused by the system itself. It functioned exactly as it was meant to do. After all, it was a free market, characterised by competition, with suppliers responding to demands, little regulation and plenty of capital available for ‘investment’. What could go wrong? According to the model, the logic of this should lead to optimum outcomes.
But it did not. Why not? This is where the search for answers becomes interesting. If the system cannot be wrong then there must be a failure elsewhere. The answer is morality. Thus, we have ‘greedy’ bankers, ‘corrupt’ politicians, and ‘lazy’ regulators. It all went wrong because of a whole series of moral failures. If our bankers were not ‘greedy’ and our politicians not ‘corrupt’, then the system would have functioned.
Therefore, we have the search for the moral villains who can be identified and castigated publicly in the stocks of enquiries such as this. Once we root them out, all will then be well again.
So much of our politics and media is rooted in this infantile and naïve analysis. It’s not moral failure that’s to blame – it’s the system. Indeed, the individuals and corporations behaved perfectly rationally in accordance with the logic of the system.
The system of profit-maximisation is the problem (the incessant need for capital to reproduce). Until this is confronted, crises and break-downs are inherent. Growing social inequality and ecological devastation are the inevitable consequences.
The Taoiseach’s recent appearance typified this intellectual vacuity. What was his analysis of the economic breakdown? Answer – Fianna Fail. What is troubling here is manifold. First, he could take no responsibility for the failures of all the political parties to correctly analyse and understand the system within which we organise our economy and society. Second, he genuinely seems not to understand the nature of the very system he is presiding over. And third, he reverts at this time of peril and human suffering to the puerile game of bashing the other party – ‘it’s not us, it’s them.’ The old game of politics designed to entertain and befuddle. And Fine Gael are surprised the latest opinion poll shows them 5% down?
The key to bringing about real and radical change is to understand our system. Capitalism is doing precisely what it’s designed to do. There can be no opposition to it if no-one can think outside its categories. This is exactly the finding the Banking Enquiry will not make. That Capitalism itself was the cause of the crash is simply beyond thinking.
As we know, one of the key instruments of contemporary power is control of language. That is why we need to contest the key discursive terms designed to construct our social ‘reality’.
We could start with the master signifier itself – Neo-liberalism. Surely, we should begin to describe this as Neo-Barbarism?
Neo-Barbarism doesn’t operate with swords and axes or with tanks and guns. Instead it uses economic instruments such as capital and debt. But its effect is the same – control over the many by the few through means of fear and constraint. It’s all slightly more subtle of course and more ‘civilised’. It remains however a mode of exercising raw power.
Crucial to its functioning is its claim to legitimacy. This is achieved by controlling the very mechanisms of thought, primarily in the media and education. Thus, people are constrained to think within its categories and internalise its worldview. Hence the language of markets, competitiveness, efficiency, choice and so on.
But if we can think outside its assumptions and categories we can see its inherent barbarism. At its heart is a deep contempt for the poor and the vulnerable and those in social need. These are blamed for their circumstances as though poverty and marginalisation are personal, moral failures not consequences of economic systems that are no longer viable.
Look at the war on welfare. The appalling indifference to our global migration crisis. The wanton destruction of our shared ecology. The grotesque levels of poverty and inequality.
Alas, look at Europe. Look at the increasingly desperate desire to punish Greece, to topple its elected government, to destroy the imaginative possibility that there is any alternative to neo-barbarism. Neo-barbarism functions on the claim that it is not necessarily pretty but the alternative is far worse.
The neo-barbarians serve money and capital and openly want the poor and old of Greece to suffer even more. They no longer hide this, no longer finesse it. It is widely supported, including by our own Irish government. This is why I say this is neo-barbarism – an open, overt assertion that the poor should be poorer and democracy set aside as a technical anomaly disrupting the smooth logic of capital functionality.
We need to vote yes to affirm our shared humanity. So that we don’t put unnecessary limits on what is acceptable and what is rejected in the lived experience of our humanity.
Why the word ‘No’? What is this precisely a ‘no’ to? Why demand this prohibition to the possibilities of the happiness of another? In saying ‘no’, are you addressing real couples? Are you addressing your gay children? Your gay friends and neighbours? Who is this ‘no’ for? Might it only be to comfort and defend yourself?
If so, why? Might the idealisation of the ‘family’ really be a denial against the cruel realities of so many families? Perhaps the denial is necessary to maintain the dissociation that keeps our idealised picture in place. This allows us to ignore our childhood hurts and losses and the recognition of the dysfunctions of so many families. Where do you think all our distresses, addictions, rages come from? Many have their origin in adverse childhood experiences. Idealising the family disowns and denies the experiences of so many.
Do children really have a right to a ‘mother’ and ‘father’? Is it that simple? Perhaps they have a right instead to a good parent, a nurturing, emotionally available parent. Not a parent as a symbolic role.
We don’t need your ‘no’. We need new ‘yeses’ – yes to children being raised by emotionally mature and nurturing adults, yes to young people, gay and otherwise, who receive responses of acceptance so that all of our human experience is celebrated, and yes to adults who commit to each other and bear with each other in our confused and uncertain lives.
In order to feel our way around within the neo-liberal political world we need to understand its strange language. Take the word ‘populism’. This is now used as a term of criticism. It is ascribed to political parties or commentators who propose an alternative to neo-liberal political policies. Describing a proposal as ‘populist’ is now an act of condemnation.
How? The criticism made is that populism implies telling the people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. In this way suggesting something that improves people’s lived reality or alleviates their suffering is dismissed as ‘populist’. Instead, proposals should only be made within the politico-economic framework of what is possible or ‘realistic’. Anything else is simply ‘populist’. The opposite of populism within this discourse is therefore framed as honesty, realism, the capacity to make tough decisions, because they are the ‘right’ decisions, the decisions in accord with ‘reality’.
So, let us consider what is being revealed here. This pejorative construction of the word populism betokens an old anxiety of elites everywhere with the notion of democracy itself. The people cannot really be trusted. They are fickle and needy. They always need to be managed and protected from their inherent weaknesses.
So the contrast revealed in the use of this word is between rule of the people (democracy) versus rule of the elites. The elites are those who know the right thing to do. However, their rule does not rest on brutal force but on their technocratic insight into what must be done.
In our times, in order to justify their rule, the elites do not invoke a deity or a metaphysical principle. Today’s source of enlightened wisdom is the market. The contrast today is therefore between rule of the people or rule of the market.
What do the elites today use to ground their claim to superior insight? The answer lies in their capacity and willingness to attend to the demands of the market. Governance lies in therefore doing not what is good for the people but what is good for the market. Policies should be determined only by what is good for the market. We should not do something of which the market disapproves. Before acting we should ask ourselves what will the market say, how will the market respond. Increasingly, all of our social services and infrastructure have value only in terms of their market efficacy.
The claim is made that what is good for the market is really good for the people. It’s just that the people don’t know this and are tempted by their immediate desires. This permits the elites to present themselves not as domineering or oppressive but merely as servants of the market’s requirements. The apparatchiks of the system are not overlords – they are simply implementing the requirements of the market reality. (It should be realised that large numbers of managers, technocrats and apparatchiks genuinely believe this of themselves.)
Thus have we arrived in post-democracy. We live under the rule of the market. This rule is implemented by a variety of technocratic institutions (Central Banks being an exemplary case) and a growing multitude of rules and performance measurables.
But the market is an abstraction. It is a personified big Other. It is simply the ideological justification for the empowerment of a few over the many. It is something constructed by the captured neo-liberal state. Rather than subservience to an idealised unitary ‘market’ when the actual empirical markets fails (as they regularly do) the State will act to save it and keep it in place.
But the ideological efficacy remains. We cannot trust the people – we must trust the market. The market cannot be wrong. Political agency is with the market and not the people. So – don’t blame us – it is not us – it’s the market!. We are merely implementing what the market requires. Though this is a constructed fiction it still works in dictating the realm of the political and economic possible.
Technical management has replaced political choice. There is after all no choice, no alternative. The Fiscal Compact Treaty ensures that mere populism (formerly called Democracy) will not interfere with the smooth functioning of the market.
The first contesting of this in Europe is now being played out with Greece. Who should rule? The Market (with its multitude of constructed rules forcibly implemented by the neo-liberal State) or the people? So far, the ideological deity of the market is winning. Those who dare challenge it are populists out of touch with (neo-liberal) reality. The Greek people have said No to this tyranny. In response they must be defeated and chastened. ‘Austerity’ (the sacrifice due to the market) and ‘reality’ (the imaginary limits of the possible set by the elites) must be asserted.
The first task in resisting is to know exactly what we are facing. The second act is to re-claim our ideals by reclaiming our language.
This article on the Mad in America website is a brilliant evocation of what real care should be about.
It is worth considering what is really happening at present in the Greek conflict with the EU Euro zone. At issue is not just Greece but the nature of the EU itself. Is the EU an instrument of neo-liberal market discipline or a democratic political union of solidarity, rationality and freedom?
What is being proposed to Greece in response to the election of Syriza? It is to maintain the status quo of the troika bailout programme with its mandatory conditions of fiscal contraction and ‘austerity’. Why, when we can readily see the empirical consequence of this programme on Greece itself. Greece is in an economic depression worse than that of the US in the 1930s. Enormous social suffering has resulted. Its accumulated sovereign debt (+170% of GDP) is mounting to a point where it cannot be re-paid ever. Greece is now borrowing solely to re-pay its debts in a perpetual debt cycle.
The alternative proposal from Syriza is in effect a moderate Keynesian approach. That this is regarded as ‘hard left’ shows how far our political centre of gravity has shifted rightwards in the last few decades. Central to their proposal is to end austerity, increase state spending for investment and social solidarity and address Greece’s deep humanitarian crisis. Writing off state debt is essential to recovery.
If the status quo is not working why is it being insisted upon? Three reasons at least can be identified:
- The purpose of the debt is not that it be paid back but that it serves to exercise control over indebted countries by permitting the imposition of market discipline
- All the other Euro zone countries are politically led by neo-liberal market ideologues who will not, or even cannot, think outside its ideological categories
- For the other indebted countries within the Euro zone collective adherence to austerity is necessary in order to avoid any possibility of an alternative being recognised
What has Ireland’s role been in this crucial moment? From the election of the new Greek government Ireland has been particularly antagonistic and, indeed, patronising of the Greek endeavour. This seems to be for two clear reasons:
- Having implemented an aggressive austerity programme the Irish government cannot concede that there was / is an alternative.
- We wish to maintain and even assert our allotted role as poster boy for austerity.
Two additional points need to be made here. First, the Irish government is putting its party political interests above that of the wider national interest. Why not join with Greece and others in re-configuring debt by, among other possibilities, Europeanising it in Euro Bonds? Why willingly pay over €7 billion per annum in interest re-payments? Secondly, Ireland is not a proof of the effectiveness of austerity. It is despite austerity that the economy is growing. The Irish economy is export-led due to the significant role of foreign multi-national corporations attracted to Ireland by low taxation and other financial incentives. Our growth is inflated by the routing of vast global revenues through Irish companies. Foreign corporations use Ireland as a base for their activities with limited connection to an indigenous economy. In addition, austerity in Ireland has in fact caused enormous social suffering and considerable emigration.
The time has come to change the ideological imprisonment of neo-liberalism and construct new models centred on social equality and ecological well-being. It can start with actively supporting the modest Greek project for liberation from Troika-imposed austerity.
From March this year until September 2016 the ECB will buy €60 billion of assets a month, a total of €1.1 trillion over that period. This money will be channelled into the private financial markets in which bonds and financial instruments are traded. The net effect of Quantitative Easing is most usually to cause an increase in the value of assets. This serves to further enrich those who own assets. In effect, there is a significant transfer of wealth to the already wealthy and away from the poor and wage dependent. This further enhances social inequality and fuels indiscriminate economic growth.
So, is this wise? Is this the outcome we want? A huge amount of capital and investment capacity is being mobilised here. Why not ensure that it serves a socially useful purpose? What we need is greater social equality because this produces better societies for all and ecological well-being where climate change in particular is halted and reversed.
How about a simple proposal? Why not direct all this wealth towards investment solely in a new Green economy? How can this be done? In at least two ways.
First, The ECB’s QE should only be used to buy new Solidarity Bonds issued by the European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund which then should only be used to invest in developing new Green economic activities and Green research. Second, the distribution mechanism should be the nation states but also, if not primarily, new regional co-operatives which co-ordinate local investment programmes in Green energy, food and social network provision. Green here can be defined as carbon-zero or neutral and resource efficient with zero pollution externalities. These co-operatives can act to create direct producer-consumer interactions, and employment which is locally grounded by providing financial supports towards more locally produced and sourced products.
This initiative, to be most effective, should be combined with other co-ordinated Europe-wide initiatives. These would include significant increases in carbon-taxation; far greater regulation of the financial services economy in order to channel investment dramatically away from symbolic financial commodities such as derivatives and systemic tax evasion devices towards the real economy; and the provision of a guaranteed basic income for all. These measures would release further investment funds, direct those funds away from a declining carbon-based economy and boost welfare and economic activity through guaranteed living income.
Business as usual is now not an option simply because ‘business as usual’ not only cannot solve our problems – it has actually created them in the first place. The twin alternatives being presently presented by the political mainstream to resolve the socio-economic crisis of today are each inadequate. We are being presented with a false choice. Austerity causes human suffering, depresses economic activity, adds to social deprivation and enhances social inequality. Indiscriminate growth causes rises in asset values, further debt, grave ecological harm through further resource and carbon use and enhances social inequality.
A new system must impose a clear constraint on growth which is harmful and instead channel capital investment towards growth which yields social and ecological benefits. We need to recover the historical language of solidarity, shared citizenship and reason and apply our values to include all of humanity and all of the bio-systems and life-forms making up our shared planet. As we face the current crises it behoves us to address solutions. Passivity in the face of overwhelming challenges is understandable. What is outlined above is radical but not impossible. Indeed, it is proposed precisely because it is achievable within currently available possibilities. A new world can thus be built based upon present foundations not just on imagined futures. This should make a programme realisable and inspire confidence and hope that it can be done in a practical and considered manner.