31 May 2010

The Flotilla Massacre - Israeli Commandos Fired Unprovoked Into Sleeping Civilians: Eyewitnesses

What really happened? Well, the Israeli story, at face value, is difficult to take seriously. The activists on board the Flotilla were not peace activists, they are "terrorists" and "terrorist sympathisers" who supposedly in PM Netanyahu's words "mobbed, beat, stabbed and maybe even shot at" Israeli soldiers who were, of course, just popping in for a nice cup of tea... or bowl of homous... or whatever.

Yes, of course, lunatic hate-infested anti-Semitic terrorists like bestselling novelist Henning Mankell, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, three German MPs including professor of public law Norman Paech, and 80-year old US film producer David Schermerhorn. No doubt, just waiting for the opportune moment to unleash their raging pent-up fanaticism by ruthlessly opening fire on a bunch of utterly hapless, unwitting, ... erm... highly-trained, er .... armed with tear gas and rifles, ....... er... Israeli commandos.

In the process of this valiant self-defence by our hapless rag-tag bunch of Israeli war-heroes who were only looking to have a tea-break on a nice cruise, it seems that, well, not a single Israeli soldier was actually killed. But up to 19 of the terrorists on board the Flotilla were successfully liquidated, and another 80 were taught a damn good lesson: don't try to break the illegal blockage and siege of Gaza - described by John Ging, head of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, as "a medieval measure which threatens to destroy the mentality, mindsets and outlook of hundreds of thousands of innocents in a process designed to unravel the fabric of civilised society"; described by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Richard Falk as almost genocidal form of total war.

This is a familiar story - namely, the usual lack of parity between the overwhelming and indiscriminate application of force by the Israeli military against unarmed and untrained civilians, a story that has characterized the Middle East conflict since 1948 when, as most Israeli historians agree, Zionist settler-colonists pursued a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing to expunge the land of non-Jewish peoples.

Here are two first-hand accounts I received in my inbox yesterday from senior activists on board the boat, Huwaida Arraf and Ewa Jasciewica, describing their experiences:

At 11:00 pm Cyprus time and in international waters off the coast of Israel, the boats were contacted by the Israeli navy. "Who are you and where are you going?" Our reply was that we were part of a flotilla and we were going to Gaza to deliver humanitarian supplies.

On the radar, the boats could see three Israeli war ships shadowing us, and 15 minutes later, a silent aircraft hovered over the flotilla. One of our Hebrew speakers had found Israel's strategy and posted it to us. It stated, "You will be boarded by highly trained, very efficient and very SILENT commandos. They will use silent inflatable boats to get to our boats and both try to board our boats directly from the inflatables and by dropping divers into the water to climb onto the boats," so people were preparing for them to come up and over the sides of the ships.

Our SPOT locator has sent out several HELP messages at www.witnessgaza.com.

Lubna Marsawa, Free Gaza's organizer on the Turkish passenger boat said in outrage, "Very few times in history has a flotilla delivering humanitarian goods been welcomed by military war ships."

This is a call to the world from the people on the boats. "We are a civilian people doing what our governments have refused to do, challenge Israel's right to collectively punish 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza by blockading their right to their own sea. This flotilla is bringing construction and educational supplies the people of Gaza and are being met by Israeli warships.

Then, the following shocking account at 6:30 yesterday morning, from Greta Berlin - an account which not only explains why whatever the crew of peace activists did, they were doing it in self-defence, amidst an unfolding massacre:

Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep... Streaming video shows the Israeli soldiers shooting at civilians, and our last SPOT beacon said, "HELP, we are being contacted by the Israelis."

We know nothing about the other five boats. Israel says they are taking over the boats.

The coalition of Free Gaza Movement (FG), European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza (ECESG), Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), the Perdana Global Peace Organisation , Ship to Gaza Greece, Ship to Gaza Sweden, and the International Committee to Lift the Siege on Gaza appeal to the international community to demand that Israel stop their brutal attack on civilians delivering vitally needed aid to the imprisoned Palestinians of Gaza and permit the ships to continue on their way.

The attack has happened in international waters, 75 miles off the coast of Israel, in direct violation of international law.

Many of those activists being shot at while they slept, didn't wake up. Many of those that did wake up, woke up bleeding and wounded. Many tried to defend themselves in whatever way they could, obviously terrorising their commando-attacks even more, unleashing further bloodshed.

Under Netanyahu, the IDF has become increasingly unhinged. Utterly incapable of grasping that its war crimes and crimes against humanity can no longer simply be dressed up as a fight against terrorists, when terror itself is a primary instrument of statecraft. Completely incapable of self-reflection or self-critique. Pathetically incapable of putting to rest the 'final solution' of the knee-jerk trigger-finger.

It is a sign of things to come.

12 May 2010

Coalition of the Willing - The "New Politics" of Cameron and Clegg, and Our Responsibility

Lots of my friends and colleagues are concerned, if not downright depressed, by the Conservative Party's ascension to the seat of government. They're also equally, if not more, shocked that Tories did so with the support of the Liberal Democrats. A progressive party, they feel, got into bed with the right-wing nutters that ruined this country. All hope is lost!

But are things really that dire?

Well, from a systemic perspective, as I argued during the hung parliament period, there's lots of cause for concern due to the three-party consensus on a host of flawed policy issues which may serve to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the convergence of global economic, ecological, energy and associated socio-political crises. These crises demonstrate the need for a radical structural, ground-up transformation of our social, political and economic systems, going far beyond what is even conceivable in the conventional political climate. But recognizing this, shouldn't make us blind to the -relatively - radical proposals that are now on the Downing Street table. Many of these proposals are really unprecedented, and do indicate that it is becoming increasingly difficult for power to simply ignore the people.

Indeed, in this seemingly blissful, warm, honeymoon period ["...Clegg and Cameron, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-...."], there are reasons to suspect that the circumstances of our hung parliament forced the Tories into an accommodation with the third largest party that may well be a good thing for our democracy. The new Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, have been at pains to emphasise that they want to develop a "new politics" which will put party differences aside in the national interest. Intriguingly, this was never the language of Cameron during his election campaign - but was a frequent feature of Clegg's campaign speeches, including his interventions during the leaders' debates.

What seems to have happened, at some level, is that the public's largely assenting response to Clegg's condemnation of petty party political disputes and power plays, manifesting in the reality of a hung parliament, proved to everyone that the British public is generally fed-up. They want something new. They want our leaders to stop their petty squabbles, and to work together to deal with the mess we're in, instead of constantly pointing fingers about who threw the most garbage.

The new coalition government potentially opens up a new space for progressive political activism and lobbying. While there's no reason to get all utopian about this, we shouldn't automatically dismiss the positives that seem to be emerging. The new coalition has put together a pretty interesting set of policy proposals, and if they stick to even half of them, I'd say we're in for an interesting ride. The test will be in whether they do indeed stick to them - and for civil society to continue to exert pressure on government to make sure it remains consistent with its most progressive policy pledges, while reforming those policies of doubtful utility.

Let's look at some of the best pledges on the table (don't worry, we'll look at the crap stuff afterwards). These pledges, however, shouldn't just be taken at face value. Some of them are long-term, and the government will need public pressure to keep up the momentum in getting them done. Some of them are unspecified, and the government will need expert input and public pressure to compel them to be specific about targets and how to reach them. This means it will be our job over the next years to keep up the pressure to get government moving on these pledges:

ECONOMY AND TAX

Not addressing the deficit by simply increasing general taxes - yet. This is a good thing. In times of recession, increasing taxes on the public in generic fashion would strain households, debilitate consumption, and slow productivity exacerbating economic contraction.

Scuppered Labour's planned increase in payroll tax - linked to above.

Scrapped the Tory plan to raise the death tax threshold to 1 million pounds ($1.48 million) over the next parliament, instead adopting the Lib Dem plan to raise the personal tax allowance to 10,000 pounds. Caveat: it's not with immediate effect, but is long-term, with the new government pledging "steps each year towards this objective".

Substantial increase in the personal income tax allowance from April 2011 - benefits to focus on lower and middle classes.

BANKING

Imposing a banking levy - the idea being curtail uncontrolled massive bonuses and make the industry more competitive. It's not clear, however, what exactly this levy will be, nor how far this levy will go - will it apply to all speculative financial transactions? We'll need to exert significant pressure here to make this an effective policy.

The government will explore the prospect of instituting a loan guarantee scheme and/or for net lending targets for nationalised banks.

No clear decision, but the government at least will establish an independent commission to investigate whether to separate retail banking from investment banking - an interim report is slated to be out in a year. Again, civil society pressure along with independent and critical expert input will be required to ensure that this commission is truly independent, and that meaningful action is taken swiftly - the longer we wait while unrestrained speculative activity dominates the banking system, the more our economy is at risk.

GOVERNMENT

Introduction of five-year fixed-term parliaments - option of dissolution with at least 55 per cent of House votes.

Referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system. See this link for a run-down of various systems. Of course, AV falls far short of what the Lib Dems were originally calling for - proportional representation (PR, or more technically, STV - or single transferable vote). I'm not entirely convinced that a major electoral reform such as PR is really a viable solution to our broken parliamentary system in any case, but it's worth noting that most theoretical criticisms of PR are very weak. We do, of course, need to think about unintended consequences - with now over half a million votes (increasing by 1.83 per cent), would a system of PR have given the thugs at the BNP some seats in the Commons?

A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords - probably with long single terms of office. Not clear where or how this is likely to go. It all sounds great in principal - but the reality is the Lords are not the real obstacle to democracy in this country. The fundamental obstacle is the indelible link between money and politics in liberal capitalist democracies - a structural problem that needs to be brought urgently to the table to genuinely reform British politics. My other concern is that due to the Whip system, MPs are pretty much forcibly cajoled into towing the state/party line on policy. The Lords, in contrast, are always not so easily subjected to such direct state manipulation, which is why they've often shot down the government's draconian anti-terror bills.

IMMIGRATION

An end to child detention in immigration centres.

Unfortunately nothing else to say here.

EDUCATION

The "pupil premium", designed to raise school funding for poor children.

CIVIL LIBERTIES

Introduction of a "Freedom" bill - not sure what this means, but it sounds intriguing and should trigger scope to explore how current legislation severely curtails rights and liberties, without really doing anything for our security.

Torpedoing Labour's pet-project of national identity cards, along with associated garbage like the national identity register and biometric passports.

Extension of Freedom of Information Act.

Review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

More regulation of use of CCTV.

This is all great, totally inconceivable under the previous government, and opens a space for civil society to call for a fundamental review of all the UK's anti-terror laws, as rightly demanded by the parliamentary joint committee on human rights.

ENVIRONMENT

In theory - proposal for a large-scale long-term programme to develop a low-carbon infrastructure, with new investments in renewable energies, a green investment bank, and a smart electricity grid. Labour promised this, and even put forward a detailed if overtly conservative plan which they then proceeded to largely ignore - so we'll need to mobilise to ensure that the new government draws on the best expertise to design a meaningful plan to transfer as rapidly as possible to a zero-carbon economy.

TRANSPORT

Third runway at Heathrow airport scrapped, along with further runways at Gatwick and Stansted;

New plans for national high speed rail links. Wonderful, but only if the plans are fundamentally linked to 'greening' our national transport infrastructure.

I think it's fair to say that a lot of these policies, if implemented, could pave the way for very positive reforms. They're not enough, at the moment, to solve our problems. But they go well beyond what we've been used to. We'll need to work extremely hard to make sure that these aren't just forgotten in the heydey of day-to-day realpolitik.

Now I'm done gushing at all this wondrous stuff, you're probably wondering about all the crap stuff.

The crap is pretty obvious - foreign policy has not even made a dent in the coalition manifesto. We're still embedded in Afghanistan, and committed to accelerated defence spending in the context of the 'war on terror'. We're keeping and updating Trident, although we've been told that the government will at least try to ensure 'value for money'. We're full-set on course for massive budget cuts to address the deficit in short-term fashion, although, as I argued earlier, that's a serious error derived from the conventional neoliberal economic model that got us into this mess in the first place, and will only deepen economic contraction. Plans for nuclear plants are to be put to parliament for ratification, when they really need to be jettisoned for being totally uneconomical, pointless from the perspective of EROI (energy-return-on investment), and fundamentally dangerous. There has been no discussion of intelligence reform, particularly on issues linked to 7/7, although the run-up to the inquest in October is already bringing up hard questions about MI5's role. The scrutiny of the banks is also pretty weak - no recognition of the problem with the bank's quantitative modelling techniques which systematically certified junk financial products as 'safe'; nor of the structural problems in the monetary system which systematize debt. As are the proposals for 'cleaning up' politics - the financial power of vested interests over the party political system has been completely ignored in the coalition manifesto, which has focused instead on relatively pointless tinkering with 'reform' issues which are unlikely to empower people while disempowering the over-bearing influence of capital. And of course, despite the talk of moves to a low-carbon infrastructure - not the slightest word about the coming oil supply crunch, its root in the peak of world oil production, and the implications for urgent joined-up action now.

So, all is not lost. In fact, there's much to be excited about, even as we ought to be thoroughly pragmatic about the reality of realpolitik and the dangers that even what's been pledged could well end up going down Whitehall's pan. The fight, therefore, is far from over. All areas of civil society, from environmentalists to civil liberties groups, from human rights campaigners to anti-war activists, from youth groups to social welfare and social justice NGOs, will need to carefully re-calibrate their strategies in order to target these issues in a holistic and joined-up way, to push government to do what it's promised to do in the best way possible, and to drag it out of the ongoing policies of destruction and self-destruction it continues to be institutionally embroiled in.

Here's to the "new politics" leading to an even "newer" politics, one that we can all buy into - not just the party-political coalition of the willing.

11 May 2010

Well and Truly Hung: Fiscal Foolishness and Crisis Convergence

In the UK, headlines are dominated by one thing: the hung parliament, and which party, or coalition of parties, is going to take power. Perhaps the subject slips to issues of economic crisis, with mention of uncertainty in the markets over the pound due to the political limbo, not to mention the Eurozone debt crisis emanating from Greece.

Otherwise, anyone would think the world has stopped to watch endless numbers of pundits pore over, continuously, the fact that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been in talks with Cameron and Brown.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Institute for Fiscal Studies report released prior to the elections last week, we now know that all three parties fundamentally agree on the extent of the austerity measures designed to close an enormous £163 billion deficit – up to around £52 billion of which no party has been able to account for vis-a-vis future economic and fiscal policies.

Deficit fetishism

The big problem is that the three-party consensus on how to deal with the deficit is completely defunct, with Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrats all ignoring the most obvious and viable solutions, while skirting the issue of deep-rooted structural reform. As The Economist points out, looking across the Atlantic but with highly relevant implications over here, it is a “simple truth”, that “you don’t cut government spending or raise taxes during a recession” citing Washington’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Rather, if governments should ever run deficits, it should be purely “during recessions to compensate for lack of private demand” – efforts to “balance the budget” through spending cuts should occur “during periods of strong economic growth and full employment.” The CBPP notes that massive unqualified cuts in government spending in a recession “would reduce the overall demand for goods and services” – with reduced expenditures in health, education, and infrastructure leading to increased unemployment, reduced consumption, demand slump and thus declining productivity – “and thereby partially or fully cancel out the economic boost that the recovery measures were designed to provide.”

Of course, this is not the full picture. Running a deficit is never an optimal option, neither in nor out of a recession – and the exponential escalation in deficits of the North over the last decades has been a key structural feature of neoliberal globalization based on a monetary and banking system whose structure generates debt through the process of creating money. Indeed, the preceding years of ‘growth’, driven not by productivity gains in the real economy, but by stupendous profits raked in by financial and information services, have relied directly on generating credit based on accelerating debt tied to asset-boom driven speculation.

To Tax or Not to Tax?

The Economist’s suggestion that raising taxes is not an option is therefore only partially true. It’s certainly the case that the solution offered by the three-party consensus – which is to raise taxes in such a way that will most likely impact on the majority of the public – will of course impact detrimentally by squeezing people’s already excruciatingly tight budgets. But that doesn’t mean taxes aren’t one answer to the issue.

Indeed, as the New Economics Foundation have pointed out – and as all three-parties have completely ignored – the entire deficit could quite easily be paid off simply by resolving existing “flaws and holes” in the current tax system. It's largely the very wealthy - people earning up to or over $10 million a year - who benefit from this. Over £100 billion every year is lost “because of loopholes in the tax system, tax bills remaining unpaid and from illegal non-payment of tax.” No doubt a percentage of this revenue “would be absorbed by the modest additional resources needed to implement the measures” to strengthen tax collection and crackdown on tax evasion, but it would leave “substantial amounts... available to the public purse.” The Lib Dems, to their credit, acknowledge the issue but underestimate potential dividends to a paultry £17 bn.

The other eminently viable policy measure, which remains equally ignored by all three parties, is the prospect of making the tax system more fairer and equalising. Former Labour Environment Minister Michael Meacher MP advocates, for instance, “taxing the super-rich (a 50% tax on incomes over £100,000 including bonuses, 60% on incomes over £250,000, capital gains tax fixed at the same rate as income tax, ending the non-dom loophole, a Tobin tax of 0.1% on UK stockmarket transactions, much tougher action against tax havens and tax evasion, and a solidarity tax on wealth could yield at least £40bn over a 4 year period).” Perhaps some of these measures seem too much. Earnings over £100,000 a year are certainly about three times the average family income in the UK – but do they qualify someone as being “super-rich”? I doubt it - tax at this level would serve to debilitate capital to such an extent it could fundamentally endanger small businesses.

A better option would be to focus taxes on those who really are ‘super-rich’. Even a 0.05 per cent tax, advocated by former chief World Bank economist and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, on global banking financial transactions could raise hundreds of billions of pounds a year. The combined wealth of the richest 1,000 people in the country amounts to £333.5bn – enough to pay off our deficit more than twice over. So let's tax them properly.

Bunker-Boot Sale?

Demilitarization is another viable option. Total UK annual defence expenditure is now around £37 billion – 11 per cent higher in real terms than 1990 levels, and 2.5 per cent of the GDP. A large fraction of this – just 5 bn annually now – has gone to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet those wars have not made us safer at all. New studies by Simon Fraser University and the State Department demonstrate that the rise of fatalities from terrorist activity has occurred not prior to, but in the aftermath of Anglo-American regional military operations. In particular, a groundbreaking quantitative analysis by US political scientist Ivan Sascha Sheehan, When Terrorism and Counterterrorism Clash: The War on Terror and the Transformation of Terrorist Activity (New York: Cambria Press, 2007), examines the largest ever terrorism database for the period 1992-2004, documenting a direct “cause and effect” correlation between events such as the offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “intensity, lethality and regularity” of international terrorism.

Apart from seriously re-thinking the efficacy of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and that means more than just banally comtemplating the generic need for some defence spending cuts, but an overhaul of our entire understanding of 'security'), we should also take seriously concerns about Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent system. It’s not only the Lib Dems who have raised this issue, but even former British Army chief Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, who is also a defence adviser to the Tories, and who recently suggested that the Trident system would probably be irrelevant after about five years. Indeed, we now know that the replacement of Trident could cost as much as £100bn, about two-thirds of the deficit. How will this be sustained without crushing austerity measures to maintain our triple A rating along with, on that basis, further borrowing and growth premised on speculation?

Growing Our Way to Stability?

By deflecting this question, the three-party consensus in effect advocates socializing the costs of the economic crisis with a view to sustain privatized profits for the few – the public has to foot the bill to minimize losses for banks and corporations, while maintain our counter-productive military mobilization in far-flung theatres. Meanwhile, we are told, continued economic growth is another solution that will generate enough revenues to close the deficit black-hole.

But this ‘solution’ rests on the very traditional politico-economic assumptions that got us into this mess, and can only be taken seriously because the three-party consensus continues to overlook some of the most fundamental policy questions of all. Global energy scarcity being, perhaps, one of the largest elephants – soon to be inherited by David Cameron – that has been inhabiting the Prime Minister’s living room at No. 10 for some years now.

The End of the Oil Age

It is increasingly clear that world conventional oil production peaked around 2008, is currently on an undulating but gradually declining plateau, and is most likely to continue declining for the foreseeable future. One of the latest official admissions has come from Australia. Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman, a top infrastructure adviser to the Australian government, warns that the current economic recession was indelibly linked to our energy crisis:

“Peak oil did happen I believe in 2008 and it didn’t happen because some oil exporting country had a revolution or something. It just happened because we couldn’t produce enough to meet the demand. Subprime mortgages were mostly out on the urban fringes miles away from work. People had to drive and when the price of fuel tripled in American cities they couldn’t pay their mortgages. As the demand increases again the supply crunch will happen and the price will go up.”

The implication is that the era of ‘growth’ as we currently conceptualise it is reaching its own structural limits. If there is a meaningful economic recovery, and it is patently unclear that there will be one, the problem is that the ‘growth’ it involves as demand increases will breach current global oil capacity limits, triggering an oil price spike that will once again induce recession. Indeed, the only thing stabilising oil prices at the moment has been the lack of demand that was induced by peak oil in the first place.

So potentially grave is this problem that now even the US Joint Forces Command acknowledges the dangers in its Joint Operating Environment 2010 report: “A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds.” (p. 28) Of course, the assumption here is that the problem is not geophysical (i.e. that we have exhausted half the world’s actual reserves of cheap oil) but that we haven’t invested enough in refining capacity. A lot of hope was poured into the prospects for exploiting deepwater reserves – a hope shattered for the next few years by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill which has frozen deepwater exploitation indefinitely. In any case, it’s also clear that deepwater could at best only slightly ameliorate the impact of peak oil, but not prevent it. The US military report continues: “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD.” (p. 29)

The conclusion, in any case, is even more dire than the predictions of groups like the UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security, which earlier this year timed the coming global oil supply crunch at 2015. And the new analysis by Sir David King, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, proves clearly that the problem is not just about capacity, but about how much oil is actually in the ground and the rates of exploitation. The King study, published in the journal Energy Policy, finds that official estimates of world conventional (including deepwater) oil reserves should be downgraded from 1,150-1,350bn barrels to between 850-900bn barrels – and forecasts that demand may outstrip supply by around 2014.

An Unnatural System

And that’s not our only problem. The danger is that as we leave behind the era of cheap oil, we will turn increasingly to other hydrocarbon energy solutions like coal and gas which, apart from representing their own difficulties vis-a-vis scarcity, will continue to contribute dramatically to fossil fuel emissions and thus intensifying interference with the Earth’s complexly-interdependent eco-systems. The spectre of runaway global warming remains a reality, whatever the pretensions of self-styled, oil-funded ‘climate sceptics’. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported the findings of a new peer-reviewed study published in Science:

“Scientists have recorded a massive spike in the amount of a powerful greenhouse gas seeping from Arctic permafrost, in a discovery that highlights the risks of a dangerous climate tipping point.

Experts say methane emissions from the Arctic have risen by almost one-third in just five years, and that sharply rising temperatures are to blame.

The discovery follows a string of reports from the region in recent years that previously frozen boggy soils are melting and releasing methane in greater quantities. Such Arctic soils currently lock away billions of tonnes of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, leading some scientists to describe melting permafrost as a ticking time bomb that could overwhelm efforts to tackle climate change.

They fear the warming caused by increased methane emissions will itself release yet more methane and lock the region into a destructive cycle that forces temperatures to rise faster than predicted.”

Needless to say, the impacts of this positive-feedback alone would be sufficient to propel the entire Earth climate system into a process of irreversible runaway warming that could, well before the end of this century, create conditions devastating to most species, including droughts across a third of the planet, failed harvests in the major food basket regions, increased frequency of natural disasters, unprecedented sea level rise of up to five feet, and so on.

Paradigm Shift

These converging crises speak to the need for fundamentally re-thinking our understanding of the efficacy of the ideology, structure and values underlying our current economic behaviour, and whether they really are as inevitable, optimal or natural as we tend to assume a priori. At the very least, it is clear that unqualified austerity – or in Stiglitz’s words “deficit fetishism” – is not the answer:

“... even deficit hawks acknowledge that we should be focusing not on today's deficit, but on the long-term national debt. Spending, especially on investments in education, technology, and infrastructure, can actually lead to lower long-term deficits. Banks’ short-sightedness helped create the crisis; we cannot let government short-sightedness – prodded by the financial sector – prolong it... Deficits to finance wars or give-aways to the financial sector (as happened on a massive scale in the US) lead to liabilities without corresponding assets, imposing a burden on future generations. But high-return public investments that more than pay for themselves can actually improve the well-being of future generations, and it would be doubly foolish to burden them with debts from unproductive spending and then cut back on productive investments.”

Thus, we need to focus government stimulus spending where it’s most needed in the context of global crisis convergence: the development of a zero-carbon transport, housing and energy infrastructure, generating millions of new Green jobs. On that note, the Green New Deal Group’s recent reports provide an excellent step forward, but still highly conservative in its aspirations and out-of-touch with the imminent severity of global crisis convergence. In the UK, the Campaign against Climate Change trade union set out a more ambitious plan for one million green jobs. Similar plans have been considered in the US where an investment of £100 billion over 2 years could produce 2 million jobs, but again, implementation is slow. There’s a long way to go, and time in which we need to act is diminishing fast – at the moment, only one-sixth of the British government’s fiscal stimulus package has focused on green industries. On the other hand, timely global action by governments could ride us through the storm while creating a new form of prosperity based on more harmonious and sustainable ways of living.

The simple truth is that we are now in an age of civilizational transition, premised on the intensifying inability of the global political economy in its current form to continue business-as-usual. This global systemic crisis has no easy answers, but unless we start thinking outside the three-party box, things will get worse, not better.

As the US Joint Forces Command report warns: "One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest." (p. 28)

If business-as-usual continues, and if the three-party consensus here and conventional policymaking reign the day, then the flawed policy measures taken by governments over the next decade may well precipitate the rise of the far-right, the permanent militarization of our societies, and the resort to violent inter-state and inter-communal conflicts to resolve disputes over diminishing resources. It doesn't have to be this way. We can avert a Global Weimar collapse, but we need to do things a bit more differently than even Clegg might imagine.

6 May 2010

The Global Weimar Phase

The historic rise of the far-right, including the consolidation of the Nazis in Germany, occurred in the context of the 1930s Great Depression. This is well-known. In Germany, the background to the rise of the Nazis was precisely the de-legitimization of the mainstream, democratic party-political system. People had simply lost all faith in the political system.

But their lack of faith in the political system hadn't sprung out of nowhere. It was a direct consequence of the massive economic devastation wrought by the systemic contraction of the world economy. Mainstream governments simply found it increasingly difficult to survive, and many didn't. The Weimer Republic collapsed in that context, and its collapse paved the way for an opportunist such as Hitler to manipulate his way to power, and to project the ills of the homeland onto the Jewish minority (among other minorities).

We're not back in the 1930s, but structurally - systemically - we're in a far worse condition. The problem is that the three main parties on offer today lack a fully-formed understanding of the real structural issues behind the concurrent crisis of world capitalism. They fail to realise that they're in a catch-22. The symptom-led solution to the massive deficit is inevitably massive cuts in spending. The problem is that those cuts, structurally necessary within the given system to stabilise our credit rating and currency value so that the government can keep borrowing, will inevitably contract the real economy massively to such an extent that it will create a serious socio-political crisis in this country in the next 5-10 years. We've heard as much from the Bank of England.

Yet what the Bank hasn't said, and won't, is that the reason we're in this mess is precisely the fact that the structure of our economic and financial system now systematizes debt. What the Bank also hasn't said is that we a full and lasting recovery is likely to be impossible in the constraints of the current system, because we're running short on the physical basis of the last few decades of exponential (and fluctuating) 'growth' - and that is cheap, easily available hydrocarbon energies, primarily oil, gas and coal.

The turning point has arrived, and without that global cheap energy source in abundant supply, we cannot continue growing, no matter what we do. Something has to give. Our economies need to be fundamentally, structurally, transformed. We need to transition to a new, clean, renewable energy system on which to base our economies. We need to transform the way money is created, so that it's not linked to the systematic generation of debt. We need to transform our banking system on the same grounds. Whitehall, and the three political parties, recognize only facets of the picture, but they don't see it as a whole.

Whatever government gets into power with this election, it's likely to be one that includes in some way all three parties. The new government, beholden to conventional wisdom, will be unable or unwilling to get to grips with the root structural causes of the current convergence of crises facing this country, and the world. This suggests that in 5-10 years, the entire mainstream party-political system in this country, and many Western countries, will be completely discredited as crises continue to escalate while mainstream policy solutions serve largely to contribute to them, not ameliorate them. The collapse of the mainstream party-political system across the liberal democratic heartlands could pave the way for the increasing legitimization of far-right politics by the end of this decade in the context of massive structurally-generated resources scarcities.

Of course, there's an alternative, but it lies with civil society, not simply with who to vote for, or not to vote for. We need to strengthen human and community resilience and awareness at the grassroots.

Anyway, I'm off as my wife is telling me off for spending so long writing this piece - we're about to pop down to the polling station now.

Happy voting!

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