Shifting Paradigms: hope for the future

Shifting Paradigms graphic

I was delighted to be asked to give the closing keynote speech at this year’s Shifting Paradigms conference, organised by the Aberdeen Political Economy Group. This is what I said:

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you so much for inviting me to give the closing speech this afternoon. It’s a huge honour to be here, and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to be involved in such an engaging and interesting weekend – well done to all of you for organising and participating in such a great weekend. It’s a real privilege to be invited to speak on a platform with such a variety of top class speakers. I’m only sorry I was not able to attend more sessions … some of you will be aware of some shenanigans happening on campus over the last few days – I’m afraid the struggle for democracy has taken up rather more time that I would have liked.

But here we are.

I am Maggie Chapman, and I am co-convener of the Scottish Greens, and Rector of this university. You have heard, over the last couple of days, some really interesting and challenging ideas about the consequences of the dominant neoliberal or capitalist economic paradigm. Alongside these, you’ve been encouraged to think about how we go about constructing liberating alternatives that do not repeat the discrimination, alienation, individualisation, disciplinarisation or, to put it bluntly, the abject failures of the normative systems in which we currently function.

What I want to do this afternoon is try and bring some of these themes together, and to outline some of the ways in which we, as an informed, educated and diverse society, can create something different. In some ways, I hope this can be seen as a partial answer to that eternal question: ‘What is to be done?”

So I will begin with one of my favourite quotes, this from Gramsci: The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

Now none of us have to look very far to see monsters: Brexit, Trump, Grace Mugabe, austerity, cuts to social security, tuition fees, the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence, and so on. These monsters are all around us, consuming our resources, our energies, our hope.

So we have a battle on our hands. For the last 40 or 50 years or so, people have been fighting this battle, but in many ways, they’ve been fighting this battle on very restrictive and uncomfortable territory, that of neoliberalism. Because, as Thatcher famously said: “There is no alternative!”.

But neoliberalism, by design, forecloses possibilities. And, importantly, it forecloses political possibilities. The monsters we see emerging from the death throes of the old world are all determined to put politics back in its box; to squash the ideals and hopes of those mobilised by the exciting energies of the Radical Independence Movement in Scotland, or the Sanders campaign in the US, or the Corbyn (and perhaps the Richard Leonard) phenomenon in the UK.

So, this battle we have on our hands is profoundly political – it is about power and democracy. And so, for me, I think we have to talk about our politics, our democratic systems, our power structures, and how they relate (or don’t) to our economies.

I think re-thinking democracy is the unprecedented challenge of our age. We still use the democratic systems from the 19th Century. Yes, there’s been some tinkering around the edges: women sometimes get to participate in them, for example. But they are still pretty much what they were 100 years ago.

At the same time, we have a population more educated, and more used to making decisions than ever before in history. The almost inevitable consequence of this is a deep seated frustration with a political process that is often profoundly exclusive for people who are used to being included. So, need to look at ways in which we can democratise the structures that govern people’s lives – how we get people to be more involved in governing workplaces, having more information about what government is doing, having more control over resource provision, and so on.

Fundamentally, we need to think about democracy differently, and give people lots of opportunities to do democracy, and to do democracy differently: it cannot just be about going to a polling station on a Thursday in May to put an X or a number in a box.

And so we need to ensure that our education systems include proper teaching about democracy: anyone who understood how democracy worked would understand Brexit as a bad idea, unless you want to smash the state … but that’s a different talk!

But I’m not just talking about constitutional democracy, and certainly not just about representative democracy. We need to rethink ownership. In an economy where intangibles are evermore, ownership models that are more inclusive become even more important.

I suppose, at the heart of this, I’m talking about democratising our economies.

Neoliberal economics works against democracy: it is about concentrating power and control in the hands of elites: global corporations, financiers, bankers and so on.

Between 1945 and the 1970s, the economy was a truce between the forces of capital and the forces of labour. The power of labour, expressed through self organisation and trade unions was supplemented by the state’s tolerance of nationalisation. So, whilst there was great inequality, society was not anywhere near as unequal as it is now.

That truce, though, was destroyed between the late 1970s and 1990s: the agreed settlement was lost. The state started selling off assets, trade unions were squashed, and capital ran wild. We got to a point where capital had over-reached, driving down the share of value going to Labour, and benefiting executive pay, dividends and shareholder profits … Instead of sharing the fruits of growth, capital (shareholders and executives) hogged it all. Interestingly, too, characteristic of this period was the rise of ‘the executive’ – proportionately executive pay even outstripped growth in dividends to shareholders.

And the effect of driving down demand (as wages for the masses decreased and more money was off shored in tax havens) was economic stagnation. This was compensated for by increasing credit: mortgages. Credit became much easier, loans became much easier, eg car loans too. These stimulus tools  – focussing on driving demand back up, create huge credit bubbles … and we all know where this led us – the financial crash 10 years ago.

So, the structure of the economy we have had for the last 30-40 years is not one given to democracy – it’s one given to bailing out the banks. And that means we can’t just tinker around the edges of it … We need a structural revolution in our thinking. When we see popular revolts like Brexit (the first time the population had the chance to hit the city of London), we begin to see that a lack of democracy in the economy is compensated for by radical countermovements by the people. And those countermovements don’t always lead us in the right direction.

So, the need for a new way of thinking is increasingly urgent. We currently have a situation where much of the economy is made up of low skill, low productivity and low value work, in sectors like retail. And this is something we have to take seriously, because these are exactly the sectors that are most likely to see high levels of automation, and therefore job destruction (just look at supermarkets and check-out machines). But I welcome this: let’s get rid of the crappy jobs that don’t provide a great deal of satisfaction, nevermind being often unpleasant and precarious.

I know there have been a couple of sessions on automation this weekend, and I’m sure you’ve discussed the huge risks associated with this. But I think, if we work on democratising the processes that lead to automation, and also democratise control of the technology that we are developing, we open up huge potential for changing the way humans interact with the economy, and for unlocking the liberating potential of technological advancement: no one wants to go back to washing everything by hand – similarly shouldn’t expect people to earn a living by sitting at a check out. We must ensure that we use automation to create job opportunities in the ‘3 C sectors’ –  caring, creating, and collective decision-making. These jobs are always going to be more fulfilling – for example, whilst we have no typesetters anymore, that role has been replaced by graphic designers, a more creative and more fulfilling job.

And it is not about machines taking over the world: to give you an example – how many of you are chess players? Well, various research on chess shows that a chess computer will beat the chess grand-master every time, but the grandmaster working with a chess computer beats the computer on its own.

So, as employment moves to the areas which have to be filled by humans, such as caring and the creative industries, so democracy becomes much more important. Indeed, we are already seeing that the most effective models of business are adopting more horizontal, and by necessity more democratic, organising models. The IT industry has perhaps led the way on this. Now there is lots that is wrong with Silicon Valley and how it operates, but their ‘Agile’ approach to business is more empowering for their workers, and more productive in terms of creative output, and more flexible which is good for creating more cohesive communities.

And, speaking of technology, there are potentially exciting opportunities for not only emancipating labour but also supporting the democratic participation more broadly in communities, in neighbourhoods, and elsewhere. Scotland is home to Europe’s largest computer – ARCHER, son of HECTOR, is based in Midlothian. The potential to use the ever increasing data that is gathered on all of us all of the time for good is definitely something we must be involved in. There huge opportunities to use the increasing data analytical powers to improve people’s health and wellbeing: for example by having much more understanding of things like the human genome, or of behavioural patterns that could lead to better health outcomes. What we have to ensure, however, is that the control, ownership and governance of these developments are not limited to the political or economic elites. And that means ensuring our people have the skills and knowledge to have a decent debate as a society about this. That is another challenge to our education system: in the same way that there needs to be much more discussion about democracy, so there needs to be much more teaching about technology.

There are exciting developments in other sectors that we are already familiar with – housing co-operatives, workers’ co-operatives, and so on. And also in areas that perhaps we would not think of as particularly open to democratisation or participation: the Netherlands is experimenting with care co-operatives, or Buurtzorg.

So, people – workers – are already beginning to design more participative ways of doing things. These things may not be transformative in and of themselves, but collectively, they begin to presage the future of a much more democratic labour environment. These initiatives are not without challenge – we only need to look at how resistant to democracy higher education institutions are – places that really should know better – but that they are flourishing at all gives me hope.

We also need to look at the ways in which we can try to create social control of investment. I believe we should give workers a right to vote for a buy out of their workplaces. I also believe we should back those buy outs with socially controlled sources of investment. As I was writing this speech I had a wonderful worked example for you. That of the BiFab workers – whose profitable business was scheduled for closure by its owners. It is in the renewable sector – exactly where we need jobs and investment – I’ll say a bit more about this in a minute.

At BiFab, the workers should have been able to hold a ballot. A ballot they would have won. Then a Scottish National Investment Bank would supply the capital for a buy out. The business could then be run as a cooperative. What has happened instead is that the Scottish Government has stepped in. I am very glad that they have, but the cooperative option would have been so much more transformative! There is still the opportunity for a key role of a Scottish National Investment Bank here though, and I think this example is worth keeping an eye on. And of course, a National Investment Bank is not the only source of such investment: we need to be supporting credit unions, public banks, social enterprises, and so on.

One area that perhaps offers us, more specifically in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK possibly, is to re-think one of the fundamental aspects of our economy: energy – generation, provision, use, and so on. And, being a Green, it is perhaps no surprise that I’m going to talk about this.

The energy sector provides a profound example of the problems with a non-democratised sector, and the very clear necessity for democratic intervention. Scotland should be a world leader in energy, and energy that does not contribute to climate catastrophe. (As a side note, I think talking about climate change is not good enough – the climate always changes … it is the threat climate catastrophe that we need to be taking much, much more seriously).

So, energy in Scotland: we have the potential to transform our system from fossil fuels, which are a resource, to renewables, which are a technology. There is an important and profound difference between these two: because the more you use ff the more you deplete stock, so the more the price rises, whereas the more you deploy renewables, the better the tech gets and the lower the costs go. And because the fuel is essentially free, you don’t offset the increases in efficiency and economies of scale with rises in fuel costs: the more wind turbines we put up, we don’t (contrary to conspiracy theorists) we don’t reduce the amount of wind. It is clear that the 21st century will see energy costing much less … if we get the politics of it right.

We cannot rely on neoliberalism to pass on these reductions in cost to us – as Victoria was talking about earlier. We know, to the very real cost of so many in Aberdeen, that the UK govt is not looking to the future in terms of energy generation: it is so hostile to renewables that it refuses to support any initiatives that support the just transition of the North East’s economy away from oil and gas – cuts to support for on-shore wind and solar generation are just part of the picture. More seriously, I think, is that most of the current renewable sector is privately owned. We need to see substantial moves into community/public ownership of energy, making this mainstream rather than peripheral.

And so we see very clearly, in energy, the need to democratise our industries, and allow for by properly supporting it, the transformation of the associated workforce to secure high skilled, well paid and secure jobs.

Building democracy into the workplace can help to address two of the key problems we have in society. A lack of control for citizens over their lives, and the need to have long-term investment. This can happen in a number of ways, as I’ve discussed: cooperatives, thinking beyond nationalisation in unions (e.g. RMT want railways to be owned ⅓ by workers, ⅓ by passengers, ⅓ by the state), and more horizontal workplaces – agile as a way of working.

But I suppose I should mention the role that formal politics has in all of this too. Well, our current, so-called ‘representative democracy’ has not really served us very well: politicians are all too easily co-opted by market forces and the lobbying power of capital. This is not surprising: if your success as a politician is measured by whether or not you are re-elected, you are going to focus on securing the financial backing needed to buy that re-election. I was struck by the quote from Roosevelt’s 1938 Simple Truths speech that Victoria Chick quoted in her keynote earlier this afternoon:

“Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.

“The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.”

We appear to have come full circle on this. There has been a fantastic range of critiques of the state we’re in. What we need is a discussion of what is to be done. One of the tricks the neoliberals have used is that of foreclosing discussion of the economy, and of the future more broadly.

It is our task to blow that discussion open. When I spoke at the first Radical Independence Convention in 2013, we had to fight to get economics on the agenda. By the end of that campaign serious economic issues were at the heart of the debate. How childcare can redress the issue of gender economics. How a Scottish currency can allow us to reindustrialise Scotland. How community, social and public ownership can be more effective than privatisation. The Scottish Referendum campaign was the first real opportunity we had to shift the discussion. It’s continued with Sanders, and the massive reverse the Tories suffered in the June election. If the new world is struggling to be born, it is our job to be the midwife. There are monsters, but we can overcome them.

And in overcoming them, we shift the battleground on which we are fighting: we make it about people, we make it about communities, we make it about all of us. That gives me hope. And hope is what we need to win.

Thank you.

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