Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The New Brexit Battle – Europe Wants Our Fish

Something fishy is going on with the Brexit negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the UK. News came yesterday that the transitional deal, whereby the UK stays effectively within the EU after we officially leave the organisation in March next year, will see the country adhering to all EU rules, but without having any say in what those rules are.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this is the case, as the EU has said as much all along, but this has sparked controversy all the same. Yes, the fact that EU nationals settling in the UK during the transition will have the same rights as those already here has caused a stir, but it seems to be issue of fishing that has most animated the most argent Brexiters the most.

The UK joined the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2007 as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, and it came into force in 2009. Basically, the CFP allows all member states to fish in each others waters. It has always been controversial in the British fishing industry and did contribute towards dwindling stocks of fish like cod in UK coastal waters. However, part of the CPF deals with conservation and stocks of cod have now recovered to some extent, enough to be declared ‘sustainable’ again.

Coastal towns in the UK, including those particularly associated with the fishing industry, were areas that voted strongly for leaving the EU, so they surely had in mind ‘taking back control’ of fishing in British coastal waters, many of them Labour held constituencies.

As I say, it was to be expected that the transitional deal on offer from the EU would be one of maintaining the status quo, with Britain losing any influence over any changes to EU policies. But last week, the EU revealed its draft arrangements for the EU/UK relationship when the transition period ends, and EU access to British coastal waters was specified as a price of a free trade deal in manufacturing goods, which again caused controversy amongst Brexiters.

It is kind of ironic that Norway, not in the EU, but in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), has control of its fish stocks (and farming), but is of course in the single market and customs union for other goods and services, and free movement of people. It looks as though the UK’s terms will be worse in some regards than Norway’s.

It’s not just Brexiters that are unhappy with not getting back control of fisheries. The 13 Scottish Tory MPs, all remainers, have been quick to lay claim to ‘Scottish fish’ and it is my understanding that the Scottish National Party (SNP), also pro-remain, wants this issue devolved to the Scottish government.

The Labour party, or its leave supporters anyway, is also taking a belated look at fisheries. Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Labour Leave, writing on Labour List, extolls the virtues of regaining control over fisheries, as a way of making big electoral gains in Scotland from the SNP, and holding onto English coastal towns that were heavily in favour of Brexit.

Chilton says this is an, ‘opportunity for Labour to appeal to its core vote, which strongly supported leave, and to go on the attack against the Tories and the SNP, particularly in Scotland and along the east coast of England.’

He concludes his piece by saying, ‘The party should also guarantee that the next Labour government will restore the integrity of those territorial waters for the British fishing industry and work to ensure their sustainability for the long term.‘

The UK does of course have substantial coastal waters, being (the mainland) an island, whereas most of continental Europe doesn’t have so much in the way territorial waters, so you can see why they want access to our fish, especially the Spanish, who are partial to a bit of cod.

Personally, I’m not interested in trade deals with the US, Australia etc, and of all the leave the EU options, the Norway model is by far the best. Control of fisheries and farming, single market and customs union members, but still no influence over EU policies. Norway of course accepts free movement, but that has never bothered me anyway.

All the talk surrounding Brexit has been of free trade deals, but it is beginning to look like fisheries could well be the major sticking point. The UK may pursue what may be termed a ‘dolphin policy’ here casting the EU as the dolphins, named after the passage in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the dolphins depart planet earth. ‘So long and thanks for all the fish.’ 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Marx's essential contribution to Ecosocialism

Review of Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By Kohei Saito written by Hannah Holleman and first published at International Socialist Review

“Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.

Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.

One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). 

The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.

This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it. 

As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”

Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.

Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”

In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.

Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.

Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.

But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually. 

In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?

The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.

More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.

Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.

As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like 350.org, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1

Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2

What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?

Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.

Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity. 

Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”

1.    Herbert Docena, “The Politics of Climate Change,” Global Dialogue 6, no. 1 (February  2016), http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-politics-of-climate-change/.
2.    Paddy Ireland, “Corporations and Citizenship,” Monthly Review 49, no.1 (May1997), https://archive.monthlyreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/MR-049-01-1997-05_2/0.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

London and Brussels warm to Brexit ‘Israel option’

First published at Politico

So far, debate on the model for the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU post Brexit has focused on two options — remaining close to the bloc and within the single market like Norway or agreeing a free-trade deal, like a souped-up version of the one the EU has with Canada.

But the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt has put another option on the table, and after languishing for months without much traction it is now beginning to be taken seriously in both London and Brussels. 

The potential third way is a so-called association agreement like the one the EU has with Ukraine and various other countries.

At a Parliament plenary debate in Strasbourg Tuesday, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier declared that he was “quite comfortable with the framework you propose” — the first indication that negotiators in Brussels believe the idea has merit.

An official from Verhofstadt’s liberal ALDE party said the Council would “discuss the issue soon.” But he said the priority was for the EU and the U.K. to finalize the withdrawal agreement. “That’s what we’re all waiting for from the British side.”

Barnier was responding to the European Parliament’s Brexit resolution, which is expected to receive overwhelming support from MEPs in a vote Wednesday. The 13-page document — which was first published by POLITICO — recommends an association agreement as “an appropriate framework for the future relationship by which these common interests can be protected and promoted, including a new trade relationship.”

The document argues that such an overarching legal architecture would provide “a flexible framework allowing for varying degrees of cooperation across a wide variety of policy areas.”

In his speech to MEPs, Verhofstadt spoke about a single structure with four pillars including trade, foreign policy, internal security, and “thematic cooperation.”

“We create one overall governance structure and not an inflation of bilateral arrangements as we have in Switzerland,” he said. Switzerland is not part of the EU, but its economic and trade relations with the bloc are conducted through a series of specific individual agreements with the EU — an arrangement that Brussels is not enthusiastic about replicating with the U.K. once it leaves.

The EU has existing association agreements with varying degrees of closeness with a host of countries including Turkey, Israel, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, Tunisia and even Syria (although that is currently on hold due to the civil war).

The idea has also gained traction in the U.K even though no existing association agreement could serve as a direct model. The framework is seen as allowing for a closer, more flexible and dynamic relationship after Brexit than that on offer from the Council — as expressed in its draft guidelines for the next phase of the negotiations.

These, for example, ruled out the possibility of the U.K. remaining part of EU regulatory bodies such as the European Medicines Agency.

But the Parliament’s resolution is less definitive on this point. “As a third country the U.K. cannot participate in or have access to EU agencies,” the Parliament wrote, adding: “However … this does not exclude cooperation in specific cases.”

Verhofstadt told MEPs he had discussed the idea of an association agreement with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis on a recent visit to Downing Street and was confident that Britain “will see the advantages of such an approach.”

Barnier himself, while reacting positively to the proposal, made clear that he is keeping his options open — perhaps in the hope that May will be forced by the U.K. parliament into erasing one or both of her red lines on non-membership of the EU customs union and single market.

“All the models are still on the table,” he said. “They are available. We are open for business.”

At the Parliament, most MEPs backed the idea of an association agreement, saying the Parliament was the only institution to put forward a concrete proposal for the EU-U.K future relationship.

“We have a lot of politicians who are presenting the red lines; who are presenting the negative things; presenting the problems. And now Parliament tries to give an outlook about how can a solution look,” said Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the Parliament and a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“In this regard, I must say we are more responsible than some of the governments in the European Union and ministers in the European Union, especially in Great Britain.”

Weber was adamant that using an association agreement did not mean going easy on the U.K. — it is not an invitation to cherry-pick the best bits of EU membership. But he added: “The idea to cover the questions on the table in one framework, in one agreement, is, I think, an appropriate one, a good one.”

Responding to MEPs in the debate, Barnier declared that “It’s time to face up to hard facts.”

The zinger was delivered in English and, by borrowing one of May’s best lines from her Mansion House speech earlier this month, it was directed at London.

But although Barnier wants Britain to face up to the consequences of its Brexit choice, his warm reception for the Parliament’s association agreement proposal suggests that he is open to a way for both sides to claim a win in the Brexit talks.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Big UK Left Independent Media Censors Small Left Independent Media Sites

Some of the biggest names in the UK independent left media have joined forces to promote their very own news narrative. Skwarkbox, The Canary, Evolve Politics, Another Angry Voice, Media Lens and Real Media are amongst them. This consortium has recently set up a Facebook group titled ‘Independent Media UK’ which has grown quickly in members. I was aware of this initiative from reading a post on Skwarkbox, but later in the day someone ‘joined’ me into this group.

I assumed that this person thought it was worthwhile me joining the group, as an independent left blogger, and posting links to my blog posts. I did indeed post a link into the group, but a day later a new rule was introduced that only the admins could now post on the group. I think these admins are connected to the above mentioned media outlets.

With not the slightest trace of irony, a pinned post from The Canary introduces the group thus:

Welcome, to what will become the largest progressive FB group in the UK. Facebook is making changes that reduce the amount of truly independent media and campaigning journalism you see in your news feed. So we have come together to ensure you never miss breaking news, analysis and opinion on the issues that matter to you.

Spread the word!

They then immediately shut down any posts from outside of their consortium, blaming this on Facebook, then set up err… a Facebook group which censors outside postings. One commenter did call it ‘controlling the narrative,’ and I think this is right. Another way of describing it is censorship for those not in the gang. There were a few more comments against the move but most group members appeared to be in favour. They may have been friends of the admins though, I don’t know.

One of these comments was ‘we are all in this together, that’s for sure….filthy rotten platform it is, Facebook.’ I’ve had my own problems posting onto Facebook, mainly because of too many posts, or posts too quickly added to various groups. They don’t seem to like you getting something for nothing, but it is not as though I make any money from my posts. The irony of the situation, banning other independent media in the group, was again lost on this commenter.

This consortium of large media sites are to a greater or lesser extent commercial sites, they earn money through advertising and reader donations, whereas my blog, and many mostly quite small outlets are non-commercial, and operate on a share a like commons licence, which is the most ethical way for independent left media to operate.  

I twice posted a link to my blog in the comments thread, but both times they were quickly removed, with no explanation offered as to why. Obviously the people who have set up this group can do what like in terms who can post and what, but then to claim that this is a truly independent media site is disingenuous. It is filtered media, and exclusive to the biggest independent left media sites.   

I think it also very arrogant of these big sites to insist on being the only on-line word of truth and interest, and rather un-comradely. The Green Left Facebook group for example allows posts from all of these left media sites, but maybe in light of what they are doing on their group, perhaps we should respond in kind, and ban them? Maybe other groups would follow suit?

It is not as though these big sites need much extra publicity and feeds as they are available on many feeds, many of which I subscribe to, so apart from anything else it just looks greedy and vindictive. I intend to boycott these sites in future.

Maybe us smaller left media outlets should get together and start our own media Facebook group? But I would suggest that it is not exclusive like Independent Media UK, but encourages other small outlets to join and post into the group? It is worth thinking about I think. What do other bloggers think?

I’ve quit the Independent Media UK Facebook group now, and will leave them to their echo chamber discussions. How quickly these alternative media outlets turned into an establishment of their own. Some independent media sites are more equal than others, it seems.    

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Budget Deficit Cleared – More Austerity on the Way

In 2010 when the Tory government was elected, in coalition with the treacherous Lib Dems, lest we forget, the UK economy had started a very fragile recovery from the 2008 financial crash. The Tory chancellor at the time, George Osborne, proceeded to drive the economy straight into a ditch. The public spending cuts introduced by Osborne, failed to bring the budget deficit down, and after two years he changed tack to basically introduce the austerity light that Labour had proposed in the 2010 general election.

Low and behold, the budget deficit started to reduce, slowly, and finally will be in balance by 2019-20, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility. The deficit refers to the amount of tax money coming into the exchequer, less the money the government spends, or to put it another way, we have been spending more than we are raising in taxes. This is often confused with the amount of money that the government is borrowing in total, but that figure has almost doubled over the last 8 years to around £1.8 trillion.

This is due to the government’s austerity policies, as you can’t cut your way out of a recession. The austerity policies have had the effect of depressing economic growth even more than the recession, hence the need to borrow more. At the same time the government cut taxes for the highest earners, further reducing the tax take, and we find ourselves where we are today, massively in debt.

News of finally balancing the budget, has been greeted with cheers from the government’s supporters, but in truth it is a woeful record. Along the way, public sector wages have fallen, with public service union the PCS calculating that public sector workers are now on average £5,000 a year worse off in real terms than in 2010.

Real wages overall, including the private sector have fallen by 10.7% since the Tories came to power. The cruel cuts to benefit payments, and accompanying regime of sanctions have caused much misery, and deaths in some cases. Public services have been cut to bone, which are often relied on by the most vulnerable in our society. There is a spike in the thousands of rough sleepers on our streets. Growth in the economy has only been modest. Hardly a record to be proud of.

What the Tories did manage to do, was frame their austerity policy as a result of Labour’s profligacy, but the depth of the recession in 2008 made Labour’s public spending necessary, and as I say, it was working to an extent. Why Labour let the Tories get away with their narrative, is still a mystery to me. Maybe they believed it themselves?

We should remember also that the Tories when in opposition advocated sticking to Labour’s spending plans (before the financial crash), so they shouldn’t have been allowed to revise history as they did. They in effect blamed the recession on Labour, although the Tories agreed with Labour’s deregulation agenda, and in fact wanted to go further.

The current chancellor, Philip Hammond, released his Spring economic statement today, in which he confirmed that higher than expected tax receipts mean that the current account budget is now nearly in balance. But he would go only as far as promising the possibility of ‘jam tomorrow,’ with the prospect of increasing public spending in this year’s Autumn budget. He wants to keep money available to cushion against any economic shocks caused by Brexit.

But more than this, austerity is an ideological fetish for the Tories. They are obsessed with cutting down the size of the public realm, believing in ‘small government’ just like their tea party compatriots in the US. They see it as an end in itself, whatever the cost.

Dr Faiza Shaheen, director of the think-tank CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies), said: “Local Councils are almost bankrupt, workers are overworked and underpaid, and we are losing the race with our competitors in the G7.

Britain can’t afford more of the same failed dogma, especially given the uncertainty of Brexit. We need to see the public sector pay cap lifted, public services properly funded, and more borrowing for investment.”

Amen to that.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The convenient smokescreen of "overpopulation"

Review of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control by Betsy Hartman written by Leela Yellesetty. First published at International Socialist Review

At a charity gala for the Tusk Trust in November 2017, Prince William warned that while wildlife population is in decline, the human population in Africa “is predicted to more than double by 2050—a staggering increase of three and a half million people per month. There is no question that this increase puts wildlife and habitat under enormous pressure.”1

A day later on the other side of the Atlantic, Wisconsin state legislator Scott Allen defended banning abortion on the grounds that “labor force shortages are tied to population declines. Labor force shortages are a limiting factor in economic growth. And limited economic growth poses a problem when government tries to pay for public services and infrastructure.”2

At first glance, these appear to be to be two diametrically opposed views on the question of population—one says there are too many people, and the other too few. Yet they share more that meets the eye.

First, both are selective about which groups of humans there are too many and too few of. Prince William raises an alarm about the number of people in Africa, while himself expecting a third royal baby, who will consume hundreds of times more resources than the average African child. Likewise, Allen is concerned with labor shortages, yet sponsored a bill this past spring to penalize Wisconsin municipalities that refuse to assist in enforcing immigration laws. It would appear that there are too many of some kinds of laborers.

Even more fundamentally, both assume that their concerns about population ought to dictate the reproductive choices available to women. This is obviously the case with the anti-abortion right wing, but this attitude is also expressed by some people ostensibly on the left, especially in the environmental movement.

As we face the growing threat of climate change, the role of overpopulation is presented as common sense, even undisputed fact. “Science Proves Kids Are Bad for Earth. Morality Suggests We Stop Having Them,”3 asserted a recent headline at NBC News. The article referred to studies that found that the greatest impact individuals—at least wealthy individuals—could have in reducing their carbon footprint was to have fewer children. The important caveats of “individuals” and “wealthy” are noted in passing while not dampening their sweeping conclusions.

In this context, Betsy Hartmann’s classic 1994 book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control continues to resonate. Exhaustively researched, and devastatingly argued, it contends that population is neither the cause nor the solution to our problems, and a focus on it imperils both women’s reproductive health and economic and social justice. Recently reprinted by Haymarket Books with a new prologue by the author, it remains essential reading for those seeking to rebuild a fighting reproductive justice movement— and anyone concerned with the future of humanity.

Hartmann reflects on why population remains such a popular fixation, even as rates of population growth have been in decline since well before her book was originally published. In fact, we are soon nearing the point where the world’s population will begin to level off. A number of advanced countries now have birth rates below replacement level, prompting worries about population decline. Partly, this disconnect is due to the fact that the population worldwide is still growing, even as the rate has slowed, and “many people are demographically illiterate.” But, this illiteracy, she argues, serves a larger purpose for the elites:

Another important reason is that the myth of overpopulation is so politically useful to powerful interests. Elites deploy it to explain and legitimize inequality, essentially blaming the poor for causing their own poverty. Inequality is even worse now than when I wrote this book. The gap between rich and poor has become a yawning abyss, the bitter fruit of decades of neoliberal economic policies, financial corruption and speculation, and dispossession of peasants and small farmers. Overpopulation is a convenient smokescreen that obscures the voracious appetites and power grabs of the superrich.

Since the time of nineteenth-century economist Thomas Malthus, the idea that the problem of poverty is that there are too many poor people has been used to justify inequality and cuts to social welfare measures. In the twentieth century this ideology was weaponized in the form of population control measures, often with reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of their targets, and in many cases embracing racist, misogynist, and coercive means. In recent years, the population-control lobby has moved away from eugenicist appeals and embraced the language of ecology and even female empowerment.

Yet the focus on population as the root of the problems of poverty, environmental devastation, and gender inequality are fundamentally misplaced—and distorting. In the case of poverty, Hartmann makes clear that the problem is not a lack of resources, but their unequal distribution. In the case of climate change, the evidence is indisputable that industrial and military pollution and consumption by the wealthy bear the lion’s share of blame for carbon emissions—even as populations in those countries are stable and declining. Hartmann takes aim at the patronizing language of international aid programs that aim to promote good “environmental stewardship” among the poor, noting, “An illiterate peasant woman in Bangladesh, for example, is likely to be a far better manager of environmental resources than a college-educated professional in New York. The latter probably generates more non-recyclable waste in a week than the former does in her entire lifetime.”

Responsibility for climate change aside, it is true that population growth remains higher in the developing world—a fact exploited in population-control literature’s “lurid photographs of dark-skinned crowds, starving African children, and close-up pregnant bellies.” Surely, these images suggest, overpopulation is at least partly to blame for the entrenched poverty in these regions. But the population perspective fundamentally misunderstands the causes of high birth rates in the third world.

Conventional wisdom has it that Third World people continue to have so many children because they are ignorant and irrational—they exercise no control over their sexuality, “breeding like rabbits.” This “superiority complex” of many Westerners as well as some Third World elites is one of the main obstacles in the way of meaningful discussion of the population problem. It assumes that everyone lives in the same basic social environment and faces the same set of reproductive choices. Nothing is further from the truth. In many Third World societies, having a large family is an eminent strategy of survival.

Hartmann delineates a number of reasons why this is the case. In many impoverished countries, children are economic assets, contributing valuable labor beginning at a young age. In the absence of social safety nets, they also provide the only means of security in old age. High infant and child mortality rates—caused by poverty, disease, and child and maternal malnutrition—also drive higher birth rates, to ensure that at least some children survive to adulthood. Lastly, women’s subordinate status in many societies and lack of control over reproductive decisions also contribute to high birth rates. Without addressing these underlying factors, an exclusive focus on bringing down birth rates is not only ineffective but, in many cases, is counterproductive.

This is not to say that women and families in the Third World—like everywhere else—don’t desire access to contraceptives and the ability to plan their reproductive lives. “A family planning program designed to improve health and to expand women’s control over reproduction looks very different indeed from one whose main concern is to reduce birth rates as fast as possible,” Hartmann writes. “Women the world over want family planning. This is the story of what population agencies have done in its name.”

Beginning in force in the 1960s, a network of government and international agencies, private philanthropies, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, population think tanks, and others have pushed population control with a single-minded focus on much of the developing world, as well as on poor and minority communities in advanced countries. Hartmann details the impact of these initiatives with exhaustive research and in-depth case studies of a handful of countries.

At best, these programs have pursued a narrow focus on population control, often at the expense of basic health care and other needed services. At worst, they have involved mass endangerment if not outright violent coercion. In several countries at various points, women and men have been literally been rounded up en masse at gunpoint and subjected to forcible contraceptive insertions, injections, or sterilizations.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) gave the following assessment of such initiatives under the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia: “The most ready explanation given for the success of the Indonesian family planning program is the strong hierarchical power structure, by which central commands produce compliant behavior all down the administrative line to the individual peasant.”

Even nominally “voluntary” programs are often accompanied by “incentive” or “disincentive” schemes involving giving or withholding food, clothing, or other services. Hartmann observes of such schemes, “For people who are desperately poor, there is no such thing as free choice. A starving person is much less likely to make an informed decision about sterilization if he or she is offered cash and food as a reward. Thus, in practice incentives often have more to do with coercion than choice.”

And rather than being a complement, funding for family planning services often comes at the expense of basic health care and other needed social programs. In Indonesia, for instance, the budget for family planning is twice that of basic health. As a 1983 USAID Emergency Plan for Population Control in Bangladesh explained, “A population control program does not depend on a functioning primary health care system.”

The combination of coercive methods and lack of basic health and education ironically can result in lower rates of birth control adoption, as women’s negative experiences with these programs and adverse side effects of the contraceptives themselves lead them to stop using them. This in turn only convinces family planning agencies to further constrict and remove women’s control from the equation.

Research into and promotion of contraceptive technology has often been dictated by the pursuit of population control and profits rather than women’s safety or desires. Rather than empower women, “increasingly, the implicit goal is to remove control from the woman entirely.” Long-lasting contraceptives such as IUDs, Depo-Provera, and Norplant as well as permanent methods such as sterilization are emphasized over safer, reversible methods in the all-encompassing goal of lowering birth rates.

Third World women have long been used as guinea pigs for testing contraceptive technologies, free of legal or ethical constraints. This same disregard for safety extends to oppressed groups in the United States and other affluent countries. To choose just one among many jaw-dropping examples, Hartmann relates: “One of the members of the FDA’s 1984 board of inquiry on Depo, Dr. Griff T. Ross, recommended that the drug be approved for limited use on intellectually disabled women and drug addicts, though he admitted its safety was not sufficiently proved for use on ‘human subjects.’”

At the time of the book’s first publication in the early 1990s, the Christian Right and anti-abortion movement was on the upswing on the heels of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which enforced a global gag rule on international agencies promoting abortion services. As Hartmann makes clear, access to safe, legal abortion is a necessary complement and backup to other contraceptive methods, and fundamental to women’s reproductive health. The right-wing offensive against abortion and indeed all forms of contraception has understandably made some feminists cautious to raise concerns about contraceptive safety and abuse.

Yet Hartmann cautions against the temptation for reproductive rights advocates to hold their tongue on these issues, or worse, seek common cause with the population-control lobby:

The population control and anti-abortion philosophies, although diametrically opposed share one thing in common: They are both anti-women. Population control advocates impose contraception and sterilization on women; the so-called Right to Life movement denies women the basic right of access to abortion and birth control. Neither takes the interests and rights of the individual woman as their starting point. Both approaches attempt to control women, instead of letting women control their bodies themselves.

What is needed is a genuinely pro-women alternative, which challenges both the population control and anti-abortion positions and which guides family planning, contraceptive research, and health policy. If instead prochoice supporters turn a blind eye to coercive population control practices, they allow the anti-abortion movement to capture the issue and posture as champions of individual reproductive freedom. Such an abdication of responsibility is not only ethically bankrupt, but politically disastrous.

The pro-woman alternative Hartmann advocates recognizes that true reproductive justice means connecting the fight for reproductive rights to a broader struggle for economic and social justice. This is, ironically, also the primary driver of declining population growth. As Hartmann notes, most economically advanced countries have already undergone a demographic transition of declining birth rates, “and this transition was achieved without any explicit government population control policies and often without modern contraception.”

Even relatively poor countries have undergone this transition through efforts to more equitably share resources and combatting gender equality. One example Hartmann gives is the Indian state of Kerala, which has bucked the trend in the rest of the country of both high impoverishment and birth rates. She credits this to policies of land reform, redistribution, education, and social welfare programs. A critical element of their success was the element of popular pressure to ensure that good-sounding policies were not just proclaimed but actually implemented. “Of the many lessons Kerala holds for the rest of India, perhaps the most important is that the foundation of equity rests on the political power of the poor.”

Political power—not population control—remains the critical element needed today to confront the threats of inequality, climate change, and gendered and racial oppression that face humanity today. Hartmann’s book remains an indispensible resource for those looking to rebuild that power today.


“The Duke of Cambridge Gives a Speech at the Tusk Trust Ball,” Official Website of the British Royal Family, November 2, 2017, https://www.royal.uk/duke-cambridge-gives-speech-tusk-trust-ball.

Jenavieve Hatch, “Wisconsin Rep Says Abortion Access is Bad For Labor Force,” Huffington Post, November 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/wisconsin-rep-says-abortion-access-is-bad-for-labor-force_us_5a006d6fe4b04cdbeb34d94c

Travis Reider, “Science Proves Kids Are Bad for Earth. Science Suggests We Stop Having Them,” NBC News, November 15, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/science-proves-kids-are-bad-earth-morality-suggests-we-stop-ncna820781.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

21st Century Socialism and a New Left Project?

This is an extract from a piece written by Stephen Maher entitled ‘Crisis of the State, Crisis of the Left: Articulating Socialism After the Anarchist Moment’ and first published at The Bullet

I argue that key foundations from the Marxist tradition can still serve as an essential basis for this project, avoiding the pitfalls posed by the critiques summarized above. First is the idea that the commodity is not a ‘thing’, but rather the fundamental relation of capital – what Marx called “the economic cell form.” Capitalism, as the historical mode of existence of capital amidst other relations and logics, brings the penetration of this relation ever deeper and ever wider into our life-worlds. 

This therefore brackets questions of cultural difference. Capital, and the commodity form that is its social foundation, is not reducible to a property of any particular culture. Indeed this form has taken hold of and transformed the social relations of ‘Western’ countries just as it has in other places.

Moreover, the basic operation of capitalism lies in the interaction between value and use-value. Capital constantly reorganizes concrete, qualitative reality to serve the infinite production and circulation of abstract value. Qualitative use-values do not matter to capital, only the endless accumulation of quantitative exchange-value. Thus what Marx referred to as a “dialectical inversion”: exchange-value is the only use-value for capital.

In other words, for capital, the only useful things are those produced for the purpose of exchange in pursuit of the endless accumulation of abstract value. The abstract becomes concrete; quality becomes quantity; use becomes exchange; and freedom becomes slavery. Indeed, because the value-form is abstract, this appears to be the result of individual free choice: the threat or use of force is normatively prohibited in the sphere of commodity exchange, which Marx referred to as “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.” The exchange of commodities, including labour-power, appears to be a purely voluntary, individual act.

The coercion that constitutes the foundation of class in capitalism originates elsewhere, in that sphere liberalism explicitly deems “apolitical”: the “private” realm of production. As Marx wrote in characteristically colourful fashion (Capital Vol I):

“we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business.’ Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

Workers themselves produce the force – capital – that dominates them; it is none other than their own alienated life energies turned against them. As Marx shows in Capital, capitalism is uniquely a system in which the instruments and conditions of production dominate human beings, rather than serving as an extension of conscious human will and collective social planning. Since investment decisions are based on the need to accumulate abstract value, the ability to produce value for capitalists – rather than meet collective social needs – becomes the primary determinant of the social division of labour, and the ends to which our collective human energies are devoted. 

Moreover, capitalists themselves do not merely ‘plan’ the economy, but are themselves ruled by the value-form, which enforces its sovereignty via the “coercive laws of competition.” Capitalists must accumulate or perish: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” Thus the “law of value” appears over and above conscious human will in shaping social relations and directing society’s productive forces, an objective force that seizes upon human subjectivity and directs it to alien ends – the ends of capital. Capital therefore becomes the subject, while the true subjects (human beings) are instrumentalized as inorganic objects.

Capital must be understood not as a closed totality but rather as a totalising logic within the relentless totalisation in progress that is history. To base our analysis of history on a conceptual totality is to assume, in Althusserian or Hegelian fashion, that we can construct a logical model that fully captures, on the basis of its inner necessity, the actual movement of ‘really-existing’ capitalism. It conflates the logical with the ontological. Though he explicitly criticized Hegel, Althusser’s “structuralism” reproduced a very similar ontology, albeit substituting the abstract coordinates of a ‘structure’ for the Hegelian ‘totality’.

The provisional nature of knowledge, and the process of discovery via proposing hypotheses, is in both cases replaced with absolute certainty about the shape of the real derived from self-generating abstract theoretical constructs. In both cases, reality is reduced to the notion, and in both cases, the result in political terms is to potentially justify forms of despotism. This is fundamentally at odds with an approach that, understanding subjectivity as rooted in the basic properties of the human organism, sees that the historical ‘totality’ is never complete, but always in a state of becoming, of being made in the concrete life activity of really existing human beings. 

This leads us to interrogate the real for its causal interconnections, and to approach human beings as conscious subjects whose capacities for free creative labour are to be emancipated through the revolutionary project. In other words, it points toward a different conception of both epistemological and political representation.

Even though capital is not a closed totality, capitalist social relations exert basic pressures upon conscious human beings, including class struggle, competition (over consumer markets, investment, intellectual property, within firms themselves, and more), tendencies toward concentration and centralization, and systematically recurring crises. But these tell us nothing about the direction of history, or the particular manifestation of these tendencies in different places and times. 

As conscious subjects, human beings exist in a relation to their situation. This is not to deny that they are conditioned, merely to suggest that they cannot be reduced to their condition. If we are to understand capitalism, we must come to terms with the dynamism with which it has been created and re-created by conscious human beings as a historical process.

It is this moment of subjective human creativity, operative at every ‘level’ and in every ‘sphere’ of social relations, which, at base, is responsible for the dynamism of capitalism. And this is precisely what makes it impossible to study human societies as if they were governed by mechanistic laws. 

It is only by examining the nature of these projects, constructed within and against specific institutional assemblages that are constantly being remade amidst structural conflicts and synergies, that we can hope to decipher the movement of history. This also means that if capitalism will not simply collapse “on its own”: if it is to be overcome, we must overthrow it.

How, then, are we to connect this theoretical basis for a 21st century socialism to an organized political intervention that is all but absent today? Firstly, one should be clear that the rise of the right in the current conjuncture (sketched out above) is a direct consequence of the weakness of the left. In the absence of an organized radical left, the only force capable of articulating the anxieties stemming from the social dislocations wrought by neoliberal restructuring has been a nationalist and xenophobic right.

Meanwhile, the crisis of neoliberal hegemony has entailed the collapse of post-1990s “Third Way” Social Democratic forces, which moved away from articulating a class-based politics based in universalistic demands for the decommodification of social services and human labour power. Instead, they hitched their wagons to the neoliberal horse, limiting their political horizons to questions of identity and inclusion within a corporate-dominated liberal capitalist order. 

In fact, since the capacity for labour to oppose Social Democratic parties is limited in the absence of a credible alternative to their left, such parties have served as particularly effective vehicles for pushing neoliberal restructuring (albeit at a slower pace), reinforcing the idea that “There Is No Alternative.” 

As a result, the legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism has also eroded popular support for even the most well established and deeply rooted Social Democratic parties. Nevertheless, as the emergence of the new left parties in Europe indicates (to say nothing of the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders within traditional parties), although the rise of the right poses significant challenges, the collapse of the neoliberal center also presents an opportunity for the left to present a bold, transformative political vision.

The best way for left forces to regroup – while recognizing the crucial difference between organizing the left and organizing the class – and seriously put a progressive break with neoliberalism on the agenda is to unite fragmented issue-based struggles within a broader socialist vision. Indeed one of the biggest shortcomings of the New Left social movements was their willingness to forsake the goal of broader social transformation in favour of individual issue-based struggles, such as war, the environment, women’s rights, and so on. 

The task for us now is to find ways to reintegrate these crucial struggles with a longer-term vision for fundamental social change. We must recognize that though important reforms can be won, capitalism is unable to fully accommodate demands for social and ecological justice. Therefore we must go beyond simply opposing neoliberalism.

Similarly lacking in strategic vision is the contemporary ‘anti-fascist’ discourse focused on fighting the hard right. Though many left groupings are now apparently relying primarily on this anti-fascism as a mechanism for building the left, simply opposing the far-right leaves us de facto defending neoliberalism unless we can come up with a positive program to collectively build toward something else. 

The best strategy for confronting the hard right is to destroy the conditions of despair and alienation upon which it feeds by formulating a bold yet credible program for breaking with neoliberalism and building toward a brighter future. This must not simply write off, but speak directly to the concerns and anxieties of those who have thus far found voice only in the chauvinist nationalism of the hard right. It must work to identify and pragmatically confront the forces responsible for the devastation of working class communities in recent decades. The intensifying ecological crisis makes this all the more urgent.

The basic principles that must animate a contemporary left program are clear enough. These include changes in the organization of our communities, including de-commodification of social services and developing ‘green’ ways of living, working and playing. It also involves reinvigorating workplace organizing, and building the democratic and activist capacities of the labour movement in conjunction with social movements and community activists, including through such campaigns as the Fight For $15 in the US and $15 and Fairness in Canada. 

But the neoliberal restructuring of the state and the economy, including the decline of state fiscal capacity and the global restructuring of accumulation, are such that neither unionization nor social movement activism alone are capable of bringing the broader political changes that are essential to rebuilding the power of the working class. 

Given the neoliberal restructuring of production, even implementing relatively mild reforms by historical standards today requires a radical confrontation with capital. The old question of “reform versus revolution” is ever less relevant. The more pertinent issue is whether we can implement reforms that are robust enough to withstand the pressures of capital’s totalizing logic, which have intensified over the neoliberal period.

An augmented left, from this perspective, could take the form of what Greg Albo has called “a political ecology of movements and forces” working toward another world, and supporting a struggle on the terrain of the state to transform it and move toward a genuinely democratic society. 

This requires building a political infrastructure that can reproduce and amplify popular power, animated by principles of class struggle and mutual solidarity and seeking to construct democratic systems of production and distribution for use rather than exchange. It means overcoming alienating commodity relations with organic human bonds founded upon mutual respect and solidarity. And it means facilitating the production of new, class subjectivities that can support these efforts, and serve as the gateway to a society in which collective human flourishing is truly possible.

Stephen Maher is a social critic and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.