BETWEEN MAGA AND E.F. SCHUMACHER : A POST-PANDEMIC POLITICAL ECONOMY
1st May, 2020
Introduction: Carswell the Libertarian goes Green
I came across something extraordinary on Twitter yesterday, from Douglas Carswell – right wing former Tory and later renegade UK MP, libertarian and Brexiteer.
Referring to this presentation by economic historian Stephen Davies, Carswell has morphed, momentarily, from a business-as-usual, wheeler-dealing, free-trader globalist of the Nigel Farage type, into a man of la longue durée. Naming checking the Tory environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, his epiphany, that the pandemic suggests ‘the need to curb intensive farming and the overuse of antibiotics’, signals a switch from the libertarian or ‘classic liberal’ faith in the market, to a small ‘c’ conservative recognition that there are different kinds of market, shades of both state regulation and cultural containment (from below), and distinct varieties of capitalism.
Why is this significant? Carswell is an interesting figure, but somewhat marginal, having cut his ties to the Tory party. However, as a libertarian and somewhat dyed-in-the-wool market liberal, his attitude towards globalization has always been something along the lines of ‘take it or leave it’. The aesthetic, ecological and spiritual concerns of someone like Roger Scruton, as to the deracinating impact of untamed, global markets on place, landscape and community, would have been understood as romantic and unrealistic. But, in this tweet there is the (perhaps unconscious) recognition that, in the wake of the pandemic, something has changed. The economic, social and psychological consequences of covid 19 will be as seismic and disruptive to the world order, as the black death was to the structure of medieval European society.
Drivers of change
Why should this be so? Because the pandemic coalesces and concatenates a number of drivers that were already primed to transform the global economy, the geo-political landscape and national political systems. In no particular order, these drivers are:
1. Climate change and the global ecological crisis;
2. Geo-politics and the ‘Thucydides trap’ defining relations between America and ascending challenging superpower, China;
3. New technology and the 4th industrial revolution;
4. Migration crises, de-industrialisation and right-wing populism;
5. Disenchantment, the need for meaning and the potential for re-traditionalization;
6. The coming fiscal crisis of the state and the retreat from an extensive Keynesian welfare state.
In what follows, I will briefly elaborate these drivers, before going on to discuss how they transform the political context for different political actors and ideologies. I will then be in a position to discuss Carswell’s tantalizing hint that the pandemic may provide an opportunity for new political alliances. I will conclude by intimating a scenario for the UK’s post-pandemic, Brexit economy. This analysis can be understood, in part, as a grounding for the policy prescriptions detailed here.
Climate change and the global ecological crisis
For social democrats, greens and the radical left, but also increasingly for mainstream liberal and conservative parties, climate change remains the over-riding driver, and the de-carbonization of the economy, the central strategic imperative. Taken as a given, climate policy is assumed to set the framework for technical innovation, the likely decline of (sunset) fossil fuel industries and the proliferation of (sunrise) renewable sectors. Although presenting an enormous challenge, there is an implicit assumption that a successful energy transition also presents a geo-political opportunity for European countries and China in particular, by reducing their dependence on oil producers in Russia and the Middle East.
For most of these actors, and this includes the dominant voices within European and North American green parties (e.g. Caroline Lucas and Elizabeth May), climate change is understood as a driver for more, not less, global integration of economies, supply chains and institutions of governance. Climate change is understood as both a seismic paradigm shift but also business as usual: green-ish, global consumer capitalism. There is a large measure of cognitive dissonance in this position. It maintains the increasingly unrealistic assumption that, with regard to authoritarian regimes, global capitalism will engender a convergence in the direction of liberal and democratic institutions, secular individualism and a systemic disavowal of what Reno (2019) refers to as the ‘strong gods’. In fact, as the rise of China is making clear, there really are irreducible varieties of capitalism. If anything, the covid crisis suggests that, unchecked, China will mould global capitalism more than vice versa. Consumer individualism tied to an intrusive, high-tech., surveillance state seems to be a compelling model.
For mainstream greens the cognitive dissonance is twofold. The existing pattern of global connectivity constitutes a low entropy, system of complexity that depends on an unsustainable throughput of energy and materials. This much is recognised by greens in the ‘limits-to-growth’ tradition of ecological economics. Radicals, such as Rob Hopkins of the Transition movement, are certainly willing to countenance a world of economic contraction. At times, in the current crisis, the enthusiasm for the pandemic as a driver of change has been tone-deaf to the hardship and suffering consequent upon any process of collapse (e.g. Rob Hopkins here ). But generally speaking, as I have argued on many occasions (e.g. 2013), such voices on the green left remain wedded to the social democratic institutions of the welfare state (the NHS, childcare, income support), cosmopolitan values and an expansive liberal matrix of social and civil rights, including open borders and a hostility to any kind of civic nationalism. But all such commitments are predicated on fiscal transfers derived from an expanding growth economy.
For globalists, the pandemic is seen as a dry run for global crises that will become the new normal. The lesson is that the world will need more, and not less, cooperation, multi-lateral institutions, technological sharing and integrated global supply chains. Legitimate questions about its role in China notwithstanding, Trump’s unilateral suspension of WHO funding was perceived as an act of wilful vandalism, and a denial of the obvious i.e. the need for global solutions to global problems. Paradoxically, the same voices that had raised the spectre of Trumpian fascism for the last four years, whilst hyper-critical of Trump’s failure to exercise state power to enforce a lock down, have been sanguine and in some cases laudatory about the capacities of the Chinese state and its willingness to enrol big tech in the most comprehensive cyber tracking and regulatory measures in history. Convinced of the civilizational scale of the threat posed by climate change, it is not hard to understand the temptation among greens and Silicon Valley technologists, to exercise the same combination of internal and external controls – pervasive surveillance, monitoring, shaming, social pressure, legal sanctions, and micro-incentive algorithms – to construct an ecologically modernist form of global capitalism rooted in an integrated system of Leviathan, corporate states.
2. Geo-politics and the ‘Thucydides trap’ defining relations between America and China.
The second driver relates to superpower rivalry and the so called Thucydides trap defining relations between a rising China and a declining Pax Americana. There has been much debate about the new cold war and the risk of conflict. In relation to the current argument, it is sufficient to note that the pandemic has brought the dilemma of relations with China into sharp relief. Since Clinton, Blair and Bush decided on a policy of integrating China into the world economy, the Faustian deal has been cheap goods and global growth on the basis of outsourcing production to China, in exchange for acquiescence to the authoritarian excesses of Chinese Communist Party and state apparatus. The underlying assumption was derived directly from the progressive shibboleths of classical nineteenth century sociology, the Whig theory of history and Rostow’s modernisation theory. With capitalist development, the extension of the division of labour, increasing individualization, greater social and spatial mobility, and rampant urbanisation, Chinese society would, it was assumed, converge with the liberal polities of the West. As the Chinese economy and military power has grown, it has become increasingly obvious that this assumption is just wrong. Varieties of capitalism are real, and there is no reason why China should converge with the West, and every reason to suppose that its authoritarian model of surveillance capitalism and aggressive mercantilism, may well, in fact, be better adapted to a world of resource constraints, mass migration and climate change.
Over the course of the pandemic, it has become clear that the manifest corruption of the Chinese response, the lack of transparency and the cynical priority accorded to national interests, made the crisis a great deal worse. The Chinese state is engaged in a frantic propaganda damage limitation exercise, but the cat is out of the bag. That China is ‘not a good actor’ has now coalesced as common sense among the political classes of the West. Just prior to the pandemic, the Boris Johnson government had resisted American pressure to cut the Chinese firm Huawei out of the 5G infrastructure investment programme. The rationale was a combination of economic cost and geo-political pragmatism. China was the ascendant power; it was best not to sever links entirely. This showed the extent to which the government was still drifting with the momentum of the post 1990s consensus, engineered by Blair and Clinton.
It seems certain now, that this multilateralist rule book will be ripped up. As well as the cynical machinations of the Chinese state, the crisis has highlighted the real dangers of the comprehensive outsourcing model. As shortages of consumer pharmaceuticals, prescription drugs, masks and other PPE, and ICU equipment made headline news, so too did the behaviour of China (and several European countries) in breaking with free trade and imposing export controls to safeguard national supplies. Suddenly, assumption that integrated global supply chains and just-in-time coordination could replace physical inventory and national manufacturing capacity, as the foundation for security of supply – looks optimistic at best and naïve at worst.
The impact of this dawning re-orientation will be profound. Nigel Farage’s vision for Global Britain was always a curious beast. Very different to other populist movements, Farage has never been an ethnic nationalist. He has genuinely articulated a vision of Britain as an open, trading nation and a champion of free trade. Already this commitment to free-trade is being tempered by a new mercantilism. Farage, along with others on the British right, are moving rapidly to a position much closer to that of Stephen Bannon. And this is the crux of it. Bannon has been almost alone in the consistency of his hostility to globalism and globalization; and in his insistence that the ‘Party of Davos’ represents the class interest of global elites that have no interest in the well-being of the working-class, middle America. For Bannon, this has always meant putting national interests ahead of global trade, embracing tariffs and protectionism where necessary, affirming the importance of domestic manufacturing and security of supply. On the global stage, Bannon has been quite explicit in advocating for a qualified return to mercantilism as the basis of national policy. Globalist liberals, he argued, had handed economic hegemony to China on a plate, at the cost of national security and the well-being of the American working class (It is significant that Bannon is one of the few American pundits to use the ‘working class’ in the European, quasi Marxist sense). ‘Bring back the supply chain’ was for Bannon, a war cry and a declaration of intent – to reverse this Sino-centric, geo-political status quo.
Before the pandemic, mainstream economists and establishment conservatives in the neo-liberal mould dismissed Bannon’s ideas as ‘crazy talk’. Witness this incredible conversation between Bannon and editor of The Economist, the delightfully plummy, Oxford educated Zanny Minton Beddoes. She just couldn’t understand him. I wonder if she gets it a little more now. As the world contemplates years of disruption and economic contraction, Bannon suddenly sounds less crazy and more prophetic. Certainly, the crisis has played directly into his hands. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the global economy has reached ‘peak globalization’. The cheer-leaders of globalism are likely to find the political environment arid and unwelcoming for the foreseeable future.
3. New technology and the 4th industrial revolution
Perhaps the most significant, but least understood, political economic context for the unfolding crisis relates to what economic historians of the future are already calling the 3rd (Rifkin) or even 4th industrial revolution. According to Klaus Schwab:
“The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance”
For Schwab and Rifkin, the emerging era will be defined by emerging technologies in areas such as renewable energy, both distributed and autonomous/off-grid patterns of innovation and production, blockchains, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, fifth-generation wireless technologies (5G), 3D printing and fully autonomous vehicles.
There isn’t space to go into the specifics of these technical developments (see here for a review). But it is worth emphasising one very significant feature of the emerging technological order. In significant ways, it resembles what Lewis Mumford called the ‘neotechnic’. In Technics and Civilisation (1934), Mumford outlined the potential for a decentralised, autonomous, and clean regime of high-tech but community-based production. However, he argued, this potential had been stifled by the ‘megamachines’ – hierarchical monopolies orchestrated by the corporate state. In particular, Mumford pointed to the massive state investments in rail and road transportation networks, which effectively which created an enduring and malign symbiosis between the corporations and the state, and subsidised large scale, mass-manufacturers and economies of scale, at the expense of networks of local producers and economies of scope. Using Mumford’s decentrist and distributist vision as a point of departure, left-libertarian Kevin Carson has argued that new technology heralds the possibility of at last side-stepping both state and corporate monopolies. 3d printing (‘additive manufacturing’) and the distributed innovation/cooperation made possible by the Internet, are making conceivable a concerted informalisation of the economy. Low-overhead, domestic production and consumption will, he argues, revive the self-sufficient, closed-loop ‘maker economy’ that defined the domestic oikos for millennia, before the advent of centralised industrial manufacture.
Carson’s Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto is ostensibly libertarian. The tone is certainly individualist and distinctively American. But actually, carried to their logical conclusion, the consequence of these technologies and patterns of cooperation would be as much communitarian.Traditional manufacturing, for instance, has often relied on large scale institutions for capital, distribution, and bureaucratic/services support. However, with the proliferation of open source networks, small, independent actors can collaborate with one another bypassing larger institutions (Hawreliak, Kish, and Quilley 2017). Radical informalisation of the economy, would take a great deal of economic activity ‘off the books’. Imagine being able to 3d print components to repair a vacuum cleaner, or an electric motor vehicle or the casing for a computer or mobile phone; or further down the line, having the technical capacity to print computer chips. It is not hard to see how distributed, open-architecture and domestic/community-scale fabrication might disrupt existing business models. Intimations of these possibilities are evident in the culture of ‘making’. For breathless overviews of this phenomenon see Anderson’s Makers. The New Industrial Revolution, and Mark Hatch’s The Maker Movement Manifesto. For a comprehensive case for the Peer-to-Peer economy, see this manifesto by Michael Bauwens.
Informal, distributed, autonomous production and the welfare state
Clearly there will still be a formal economy and a tax base. But any concerted process of informalization will create real pressures on the state. In such circumstances, and combined with biophysical limits to growth, the more semi-informal, autonomous production and repair/upgrading/recycling of higher quality, less-disposable consumer goods, will certainly reduce the entropic and ecological problems relating to energy throughput, pollution and resource depletion. But at the same time, with reduced fiscal resources available to the state as a result of both the informalisation and contraction of economic activity, the social democratic compact that has defined the welfare state since the 1940s will not survive.
What will replace it? How will society take care of the sick, the disabled, children and elders? It is easy to see why feminists might rail against this prospect. The most straightforward outcome would be for women to take up the slack, and have imposed, their traditional responsibility for care. This is perhaps likely since economic contraction will be most marked in those public sector, clerical and care jobs dominated by women. On the other hand, the re-emergence of household and community production also raises the possibility of new configurations, or new takes on pre-industrial gender relations.
For instance, with the connectivity of the Internet, the pandemic has underlined the great potential for home-schooling. If men, women and children are coming back into the home and the community, this could be seen as a process of ‘desegregation’: i.e.the weakening of that distinctively modernist zoning of work, family and school activities, that so exercised Jane Jacobs in her critique of modern planning and architecture. Instead of simply reconstituting, in the home, the industrial-era sexual division of public and private labour, the autonomous, re-maker version of informal, distributed, familial capitalism, could end up being more of a high-tech Kulak economy. Mennonite and Amish communities already practice something like this. Rather than eschewing technology, the Amish are very selective but highly sophisticated in their engagement with modern technology. And as Peter Franklin argued in Unherd, they present a curious communitarian counterpoint to modern systems of health provision that is in many ways more resilient and certainly cheaper.
Mennonite and Amish communities are clearly traditional and patriarchal in their organisation of gender relations. It’s not necessarily the case that a strong communitarian ‘livelihood’ economy must be anti-feminist. It does seem likely that it would be natalist in orientation, predicated on a strong institution of marriage and entail strong ascriptive institutions for community participation and reciprocation. It seems also likely that for such a system to cohere, there would need to be much greater acceptance of shared values and public rituals – invariably a function of religious institutions and experience. Secular liberalism is corrosive of the domain of Livelihood. It requires the rejection and continual undermining of those ‘strong gods’ – shared and non-negotiable conceptions of truth, meaning and purpose. Liberal individualism depends on the atomising interplay of the State operating in tandem with the Market. Elsewhere I have explored the implication of a remerging domain of Livelihood as a counterpoint to both State and Market in relation to health systems and sustainable development goals.
4. Migration crises, de-industrialisation, working class politics and ‘right wing’ populism in the West
Firstly, the opening up of western economies has coincided with an unprecedented inflow of people resulting from a combination of economic migration (particularly from post-soviet Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian subcontinent) and refugees from (partly western sponsored) wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The scale of this influx is unprecedented. Certainly, in the UK and Germany, the decision to relax border controls has been political: in the UK, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sought to use mass migration as a way to build a permanent labour majority in the cities; in Germany, Angela Merkel’s volte face in 2015, was driven by the urge to expiate national guilt with regard to the Second World War. Across Europe, an unwillingness by the mainstream media and political parties to discuss the problems of social cohesion, crime and identification with those working-class communities most affected, has engendered a growing alienation of these constituencies from the mainstream of political life. The problem of too-rapid diversification has coincided with the economic implosion of traditional manufacturing, which entailed not simply economic hardship and underemployment, but a deep and growing sense of class and national identities and interests being undervalued or disparaged.
Such developments have been discussed in great detail by Douglas Murray, JD Vance, Eric Kaufmann, Matthew Goodwin , David Goodhart and many others. Channelling two centuries of sociological and Romantic concern about the tension between what Tönnies referred to as ‘gemeinschaft’ and ‘gesellschaft’, Goodhart’s contrasts the cosmopolitan outlook of professional, liberal and mobile ‘nowheres,’ clustered around the networked capital cities and nodes in the global economy, on the one hand, and provincial, place-bound, community-rooted, we-identifying ‘somewheres’ of the rustbelt and fly-over states, on the other. The growth of parties such as AfD in Germany, the Sweden Democrats, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and the repeated electoral upsets (Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson) that have dominated politics in the western democracies, present a seemingly entrenched pattern of populist insurgency.
Not only have traditional Social Democratic parties sought to silence any discussion of immigration, multiculturalism and integration as racist, but they have also rendered themselves unable to defend convincingly, the Keynesian social compact of the post war period. From the 1990s, such parties abandoned the project of national regulation of the economy and accommodated themselves to globalization as non-negotiable – a done deal. Ignoring the structural reality that post-war social democracy was always, by definition, an exclusive solidarity predicated on strong borders and a civic-national ‘imagined community’, socialists instead embraced identity politics and increasingly esoteric discourses of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, radical feminism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-militarism, global environmentalism, lesbian and gay rights and, most jarringly perhaps, trans-rights. Increasingly, the left’s offering was defined by diversity, a commitment to open borders, a compulsive denigration of western history, national identity and any manifestation of white or male ‘privilege’. The one identity that no longer finds a place at the table is that of the white working class. The political lexicon has become saturated with denigrating phases – white van man; red-necks, chavs, fly-over states, the deplorables – which capture this systemic disparagement of white working-class communities, that were once construed as the vanguard of progressive socialist politics.
In many ways, this political trajectory was inevitable once social democrats abandoned the nation-state and civic nationalism as the necessary architecture for a redistributive welfare state (see my analysis here). To a great extent, despite the fact that ‘neo-liberal’ remains the insult of choice for anyone on the right, the traditional left has become both globalist and neo-liberal in orientation. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for instance, in her foregrounding of gender identity politics and open borders, is far closer to the Koch Family Foundations (ground zero for neo-liberal advocacy) than to any traditional form of social democracy (see Quilley here). This is what Reno (2019: Loc 1795) means when he talks about the post-war consensus as a ‘fusion of open economy and open government’. Globalization has taken this formula to its logical conclusion, stripping away the protections of national social compacts and strong borders. And of course, as the left has vacated this space, right wing populists have moved in. Hostile to globalization and cosmopolitanism, the populist right is defined by an orientation to ‘national conservatism’ and an overarching commitment to the nation-state. In Europe, it is the Swedish Democrats and Le Pen’s National Rally that are most committed to defending the welfare state. They have the advantage of being unequivocal in their support of borders and immigration controls as the foundation of that necessarily ‘exclusive’ solidarity. Paradoxically, by focusing on immigration, many of these parties (in Netherlands and France in particular) have been able to make their peace with sexual liberation and historical antisemitism, by advocating for Jews and gays and against the perceived prejudice of incoming Muslim refugee and migrant communities.
The bottom line is that globalism, and the kind of open society advocated by George Soros (based on the ideas of his one-time teacher Karl Popper), doesn’t provide a stable basis for mutual identification and the fiscal distribution necessary for any kind of enduring social compact. Rhetorical internationalism has effectively disarmed the left. The danger, particularly in Europe, is that by undermining the discourse of civic nationalism, the left has opened the door to ethnic nationalism.
5. Disenchantment, the need for meaning and ontological security and the potential for re-traditionalization
Schiller’s notion of the ‘de-Godding’ of nature, and subsequently Weber’s concept of disenchantment, have become a recurring theme in art, literature and social commentary. For Weber, the process of disenchantment was consequent upon the scientific revolution, processes of rationalization, individualization and the disembedding of the ascriptive structures of traditional society. It constitutes the defining character of modern societies. Although liberal culture has grown comfortable with possibility that life might be meaningless, as Nietszche warned, it’s not clear that any civilisation can remain stable and endure without a deep-seated mythological story and sources of what R.D. Laing and later Giddens refer to as ‘ontological security’ i.e. socially guaranteed structures of meaning. And as Ernest Becker argues in the Denial of Death, such culturally-sanctioned structures of meaning are necessary to furnish individuals with credible and workable ‘hero’ and ‘immortality’ projects. Hero projects ensure that a person’s life and works is meaningful and worthwhile by the lights of his or her own society. Immortality projects assuage the terrifying fear of death by engendering the possibility of literal or symbolic immortality. The coherence and effectiveness of such meaning structures is a function of the culture of particular societies.
As Polanyi showed, the ‘disembedding’ associated with the market was always corrosive of community and place-bound structures of reciprocation and mutual security. This ‘great transformation’ was a prerequisite for the emergence of the spatially and socially mobile individuals – of the sort that we routinely celebrate and take for granted (for instance in our injunction to young people to go out and realise their potential: ‘You can be anything if you put your mind to it’). But such individuals are also vulnerable. Thrust into a disorienting world of, often harsh, choices, and stripped of traditional sources of security, over time, the state was forced to intervene. The result of what Polanyi referred to as the long, countervailing movement for societal protection, was eventually the emergence of the welfare state: collectivist institutional protections substituting for communitarian and ascriptive, livelihood-based forms of security, previously associated with clan, family, guilds and place-bound forms of association.
Putting on one side the question of the sustainability of the Keynesian social compact, it is worth noting three things in relation to this problem of enchantment and rationalization. Firstly, the collectivist forms of security did not in themselves solve the problem of disenchantment or function as sources of meaning. The alienating and disenchanting impact of Taylorist work regimes and assembly-line manufacture has long been a focus for left wing criticism (e.g. Marx on alienation; Braverman on deskilling and the labour process). However, to the extent that post-war political economy engendered sources of ontological meaning in the sense of Becker, Weber or Laing, these were tied to the civic-national imaginary and expressed through things such as football and place-bound forms of community associated with class and occupation (e.g. the Durham Miner’s Gala). It is precisely these collective class and national forms of meaningful mutual identification, that have been disorganised by globalization and denigrated by the cosmopolitan virtue-signalling of Goodhart’s ‘nowheres’. Where they have succeeded, populist insurgencies have offered not simply economic and political solutions to the perceived inequities of the open, liberal economies. Rather they have tapped into a deep-seated need for meaning, we-group identities, national mythologies and ontological security.
How then does this problem of meaning and mutual identification relate to the question of peak-globalization and the possible re-nationalization of the economy (Bannon’s mantra: ‘bringing the supply chain home’). First, one reason for populist success is the mobilisation of a national we-imaginary. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that any successful political project must include a nationalist or patriotic sensibility. What remains at issue is the extent to which this involves a softer-edged, civic national sentiment of the kind George Orwell celebrated in the Lion and the Unicorn, as opposed to a hard-edged, ethno-religious nationalism. If Reno is right, there is little chance of avoiding the return of ‘strong gods’ – forms of identification with place, landscape and metaphysical truth. The post-war agenda of ‘weakening’, ‘lightening’ and relativizing such commitments is unravelling along with the social compact, under the corrosive impact of globalisation. The important questions relate to the nature of the particular gods in question – of the commitments, patterns of mutual identification (‘we’) and metaphysical foundations, that come into play.
Secondly, the possibility of a parallel process of localization intimates a potential for new sources of enchantment and meaning; for hero/immortality projects (in Becker’s sense) rooted in skilled fabrication, micro-entrepreneurialism, reciprocal barn-raising activity and craft production. Distributed, open-architecture, and community-based fabrication can provide a vehicle for embedded markets and familial production in line with the political economic models of distributism (see Hickey 2017). But more than this, in ways captured by countless writers, from the Kropotkin, EF Schumacher and Wendell Berry, localism and DIY production can also function as vehicles to shift markers of social prestige and psychological self-worth from passive consumption to active and collaborative making (Hawreliak, Kish, and Quilley 2017). This would seem to be an essential attribute of any truly green or conservative society.
6. The coming fiscal crisis of the state and the retreat from an extensive Keynesian welfare state
All the indications are that the current economic crisis will be more profound than even the shock of 2008. This time however, western societies have little financial slack to cushion the impact. Without Britain, rocked by an ongoing migration crisis, and structural mismatch between the economies of northern and southern Europe, the EU will be lucky to emerge in one piece. But the pandemic coincides with a deeper crisis relating to the biophysical limits to growth (for a pithy if unoriginal distillation of relevant economic and ecological analysis see, former strategic analyst for Tullet Prebon, Tim Morgan’s Perfect Storm). In these conditions, even the wealthiest states will be hard-pushed to sustain the extensive forms of welfare provision that have come to be taken for granted in Western societies.
An unintended consequence of the welfare state has been to underwrite the maximal atomisation of society; the proliferation of single person households and one-parent families; the dependence of families with special educational, medical or psychological needs on the institutions of state and/or the corporate market providers; and the erosion of extended families, neighbourhood networks, communitarian structures of reciprocation and faith-based aid systems (i.e. the domain of Livelihood). As a result, the most modern, maximally mobile societies of individuals are least well-placed to accommodate a structural, seismic contraction in both the State and the Market. And yet that is what ecological limits and the pandemic-depression are likely to mean.
At the same time, in the wake of this retreating tide of big state and big market, the domain of livelihood – the informal, place-bound, and familial forms of micro-fabrication, community production and informal economy, along with organic networks of care and mutual aid, including cooperative homeschooling and elder care – is likely to blossom in new and unexpected ways. The collapse in fiscal transfers from a contracting economy, will force individuals, households, neighbourhoods, communities, and churches to take the strain. And take it they will, at first unwillingly, with trepidation, but perhaps in time with enthusiasm and a will to innovate, and to recover time-tested, pre-modern forms of association based on more ascriptive ties of place, occupation and faith. This is the possibility invoked by the Front Porch Manifesto.
The Shape of Post-Pandemic Politics
These drivers will play out differently according to the ideological context and milieu. Very few political actors are able to understand, and to address, the entirety of the rapidly changing, political landscape. Those that are able to, will be much more successful. Table 1 lays out the bare bones of these opportunities and threats as they affect and are perceived by extant political and ideological actors. Some of these are political parties; some are ideological tendencies within existing parties; and some are orientations or concerns that express, in a variety of ways, across multiple actors and organisations. The table also indicates the extent to which the intersection between drivers and political/ideological actors and orientations represents a threat or an opportunity, as well as any momentum for localism, re-nationalization and globalism, respectively.
Table 1: Drivers of change and party ideologies
See table here
The shaded cells indicate instances in which drivers create a momentum and political opportunities for particular parties and ideologies. The divided cells in the ‘Green’ column indicate a structural, though often barely acknowledged, split, within most green parties and movements, between a foundational (neo-Malthusian; ecological economic) premise of biophysical limits to growth on the one hand, and an ecologically modernist commitment to the liberal, democratic ‘society of individuals’, which finds its most complete expression with globalization and narratives of cosmopolitan diversity, on the other.
The point of this table is to illustrate the emerging possibility for strange and unprecedented coalitions across the left -right political divide. Such thinking has, of course, a long history. Much recent activity has centred on post-liberalism (coined by John Gray), the red Toryism of Phillip Blond’s ResPublica, the Blue Labour thinking of Maurice Glasman and the theological political economy associated with the ideas of distributism. This intellectual milieu finds its most coherent expression in the vision of the reinvigorated Social Democratic Party whose New Declaration champions a ‘communitarian, social democratic, nation state’. In America, it resonates with the localism of Mitchell and Peter’s Front Porch Republic.
Nevertheless, it is worth spelling out some of the unusual overlaps and parallel streams of thought that indicate political configurations that, although seemingly unlikely, may be latent in the ‘adjacent possible’. What then does the comparison in Table 1 indicate?
To the extent that climate change motivates degrowth movements and green localism, it can function in opposition to globalisation; and, therefore, providing an impetus for re-nationalisation and localism. Greens tend to be comfortable with the latter, but have great difficulty aligning themselves with nationalist projects of any sort – hence the UK Green Party’s commitment to the EU, despite the fact that the unstable politics of the bloc make it much more dependent upon, and committed to, economic growth, than any of its member states. Nevertheless, there is the basis for an alignment between greens and national/one-nation conservatives – a potential that, in the UK at least, may become easier to articulate post-Brexit.
Because of the very real possibility of military conflict, super-power rivalry is clearly dangerous. But it is also a driver against globalization and for the strategic re-nationalization of the economy, or as Bannon puts it, the need to ‘bring the supply chain home’. This creates a clear resonance between conservatives and nationalists (against the libertarian market-liberalism that has dominated Republican politics in recent decades). However, the agenda for re-industrializing national economies, hollowed out by globalization and outsourcing to China, clearly resonates with the class politics of right-wing populism. A national security agenda can, it is claimed, also deliver jobs and investment for rust-belt regions of the United States and Northern Europe. This is the basis of Stephen Bannon’s winning formula ‘right on culture, left on economy’.
The burgeoning 4th industrial revolution represents a massive opportunity for greens to advance a high tech. localism. Hitherto, most localist insurgencies have been luddite and anti-modernist. In the tradition of Tolstoy, Kropotkin and Gandhi, Schumacher’s injunction that ‘small is beautiful’, however poetic, seemed to require an uncomfortable degree of ‘hair shirt’ simplicity. But as the converging perspectives of Carson, Bauwens and Rifkin suggest, localism is now, at least potentially, reconcilable with sophisticated technology and a culture of distributed innovation and peer-to-peer collaboration. At the same time, P2P maker culture, makes it possible to imagine place-sensitive production and consumption cycles that remove long distance transportation, packaging, psychological advertising and mass consumption based on economies of scale; and engender instead a culture of high quality, repairable, recyclable, upgradeable fabrication based on economies of scope. In technical terms, the prospect is for the 4th industrial revolution to lower the unit ‘transformity cost’ of complexity – which is to say the energy and materials associated with the entire range of supply chains implicated in the production of any product or service (for a full explanation see H.T.Odum) But the utopian-green version of this revolution doesn’t preclude a more prosaic process of re-industrialization based on more traditional SMEs and cooperative enterprises as the object of a concerted industrial policy. In this way, the 4th Industrial revolution could provide the foundation for Conservative and Republican policies, aimed at consolidating support in traditional working-class communities in the North of England (the ‘red wall’) and rust-belt America. Similarly, if they are interested in recovering a relationship with traditional working-class constituencies, and moving away from sectarian identity politics, social democratic parties, will find a great deal to support in the prospect of a process of high tech. reindustrialization involving thousands of new upstart SMEs. In this context, there would be the possibility of reviving craft and artisanal traditions of training and education, and mutual support involving guilds, apprenticeships and friendly societies (and even the Txoko Basque cooking club, see Quilley). Finally, although dependent on a re-nationalized and regulated economic space, the prospect of a localizing, fourth industrial revolution should also prove enticing to libertarians. This is because the strategy can only work if regulation and tax are scaled to enterprise size and scale of operations. For familial, household and community enterprises, at the interface between the informal economy and more visible SMEs, there would be an unprecedented opportunity for self-actualizing, self-directed, autonomous production and consumption, with much less intrusion from the state, and much less market exclusion by large corporations working in tandem with the legislative state (see Scott’s Seeing Like a State).
Aside from nationalism, the driver of right-wing populism represents an untapped (though quite possibly toxic) opportunity for greens to move away from arid, technical expertise that has proved so alienating for many people, and to re-centre the conservation of cherished landscapes, ecosystems, and food and farming traditions, as national heritage and a living mythology. Such a strategy could easily combine with the kind of populist, land-access campaigns mounted by the communist-influenced Ramblers Society in the 1930s – now directed at golf courses and upland estates. For national and one-nation conservatives moving away from neo-liberalism, right wing populism presents an opportunity to forge a genuine relationship with working class communities that have become alienated from the increasingly cosmopolitan, ‘nowhere-politics’ and de facto neo-liberalism of most social democratic parties, particularly the US Democrats and the UK Labour Party, but also the Canadian Liberals and NDP.
To the extent that they are willing to channel ecological concerns through the filters of class, community and national forms of identification, the driver of disenchantment and the search for meaning presents clear opportunities for ‘degrowth greens.’ It also offers a very clear bundle of opportunities for conservative parties that are willing to break with the anodyne, post-war consensus, and to re-establish strong, ascriptive narratives and rituals around national identity, faith, family, local community and – engaging with the drivers listed above – the meaning-generating possibilities of artisan and craft work, guild and other forms of association, authentic traditions of local food and drink and an unapologetic emphasis on public rituals involving breaking bread, barn-raising participation and reciprocation and flag-waving. The opportunities for nationalists are obvious. But it is also true that libertarians who are happy to focus on the expansion of an autonomous, livelihood culture of social and economic ‘nooks and crannies’, would really be able to take advantage of the micro-production, entrepreneurialism, craft work and artisanal autonomy as sources of aesthetic and social meaning. And less obvious for libertarians, the collaborative and associative dimensions of such activity, is also a rich fountain of both ontological and physical security.
Finally, unless they are willing to contemplate new ways of combining welfare safety nets with new and innovative, communitarian forms of association rooted in family, faith, neighbourhood, friendly society, guild etc., the coming fiscal crisis and retrenchment of the welfare state will be a disaster for social democrats. Naturally more fiscally restrained, and arguably more comfortable with ethos of communitarian self-organisation (Burke’s ‘small platoons’), conservatives are much better placed to take advantage of this driver. For example, there are all sorts of possibilities to combine elements of guaranteed basic income, a social dividend paid from a Georgist ‘single tax’, eco-dividends from taxes on pollution, conscription, life-long community service and charity (see Quilley 2012; and Boris Johnson 2020 Wishlist in British Intelligence). As with conservatives, any crisis which simultaneously weakens the reach and ambitions of the state, is an opportunity for libertarians. In this case, that opportunity would be realised only to the extent that libertarian freedoms are understood to operate in tandem with communitarian forms of association or as Nisbet once put it ‘laissez faire for groups.’
Most visions of relocalization – on the both the left (e.g. Kropotkin’s anarchism; Rob Hopkins Transition Towns movement; Kevin Carson’s left-libertarian vision of a stateless society ) and on the conservative/communitarian right (e.g. Mitchell and Peter’s Front Porch Republic, Wendell Berry; Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy; or Barbara Schumacher and Joseph Pearce’s Small is Still Beautiful) –
involve the re-embedding of markets, a greater emphasis on face-to-face relationships within extended families and communities, and often an insistence, albeit unspecified, on the need for some kind of re-enchantment. It is indicative that major figures such as E.F. Schumacher, Martin Heidegger, Wendell Berry, often appear in the historiography of both right and left. On the ecological left, the imperatives of meaning and re-enchantment usually centre on a spiritual reconnection with nature; on the right, they appear in the re-articulation of traditional religion as a social, spiritual, ecological and familial sacrament. What they share is a commitment to the intersections of place, landscape, family, spirituality and the centrality of conviviality and breaking bread.
The crisis triggered by the covid pandemic is systematic and deep. It will unfold as an ongoing pattern of disruption for years. The popular sentiment and media platitude that there is ‘no going back’ is probably true. However, how the political and economic landscape is reconfigured will be defined by politics – albeit within very tight fiscal, economic and geo-political constraints. However, the six drivers identified here, will continue to define a raft of possibilities. They suggest an intriguing possibility, namely a political economy that:
Is market-oriented and capitalist,
Is deeply-green and limits-sensitive
Would reverse the logic of globalization and re-nationalize the institutional frame of economic activity (with tariffs, procurement strategies, labour market and training policies and much more selective trading agreements)
Would liberate local and more embedded/communitarian markets to kickstart the 4th industrial revolution, not only at the level of corporations, but with SMEs and informal farm gate/kitchen table, ‘low overhead’ forms of production and consumption.
Is communitarian, in fostering the ‘re-wattling’ of civil society i.e. the recovery and innovation of all manner of associational forms to fill the gaps left by a substantially retreating welfare state (including marriage, home schooling associations, guilds, Txoko cooking clubs, allotment societies, community housing etc.
Degrowth or limits-sensitive greens, libertarians, nationalists, conservatives and even post-liberal type social democrats (such as the UK SDP) all have a great deal to gain from this agenda. But for all of them, success will depend on a pragmatic, non-ideological, thematic and issue-based approach to political alliances. Libertarians will appreciate the free-for all informalization of the maker economy – but this can only flourish in the context of mercantilist trade policy and state interventions to renationalize the economy, as well as internal regulations to enforce competition policy to favour localist production and enterprise. Greens will leap at the chance of low-overhead localist production systems with orders of magnitude reductions in the ecological footprint. But politically, this means working with conservatives and nationalists to advance an agenda that is post-liberal and anti-globalization. If greens are involved, there is certainly a better chance that the ‘imagined community’ animating this movement is civic, rather than ethnic or religious, in character. Conservatives will likewise have to accept that political success may well involve a much greater emphasis on drivers such as climate change and ecological integrity – in relation to which they have accrued a significant residue of ideological scepticism.
Bannon’s master stroke in 2016 was to recognise the dynamics of ‘omnibussing’ i.e. the way that the political landscape rolls together and clusters issues such as to define particular constituencies as out of bounds or ‘owned’ by the opposition. Business as usual politics works with these pre-packaged clusters. Green politics is liberal, urban and fairly woke. Thus, in North America, climate change goes with pro-choice; climate skepticism with pro-life. It was natural, therefore, for the Canadian Green Party to eject a candidate for her pro-life views. A genuinely disruptive political entrepreneur might have chosen to reflect on the possibility that this decision undermined the possibility of the Party making any significant inroads into Canada’s significant Catholic population – a poor outcome for a movement for which the only success that really matters is a seismic energy transition. Rather than accepting the logic of the extant political landscape, an entrepreneurs would always ask counter-intuitive questions. For instance, one might ask in North America: what would it take, for rednecks and oil-sands truckers to vote Green?
In medium term, the one certainty is that the ‘new normal’ in politics will be disruption. The old models of social democracy and market liberalism can no longer deliver either economic growth or social cohesion. The cluster of drivers identified here, suggest that there are real possibilities for a model of economy and society that is variously nationalist, conservative, libertarian, communitarian and green. Whether this agenda comes together depends very much on the nature of the conversations that take place across these ideological silos.
In addition to the hyperlinked papers and books, readers may be interested to follow up some of the author’s academic papers which are available here. Of particular relevance are Degrowth is not a liberal project (2013), System Innovation and a New ‘Great Transformation’: Re-embedding Economic Life in the Context of ‘De-Growth’ (2012) Entropy, the anthroposphere and the ecology of civilization: An essay on the problem of 'liberalism in one village' in the long view(2011), Entropy, the anthroposphere and the ecology of civilization: An essay on the problem of 'liberalism in one village' in the long view – and also the many papers on my blog, Navigators of the Anthropocene. I’m happy to email more recent papers and chapters, which have yet to find their way to academia.edu. These include:
Zywert, K. and Quilley, S. (Eds) (2019) Health in the Anthropocene: Living well on a finite planet (Toronto University Press) (In press)
Kish, K. and Quilley, S. (2019). ‘Livelihood and the Individual: New Ecological Economic Development Goals’. In: BSIA-10: Reflections on the Sustainable Development Goals. By: Dalby, S. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, ON.
Kish, K. and Quilley, S. (2019). Labour and Regenerative Production. In: A Research Agenda for Ecological Economics. By: Costanza, B., Farley, J., and Kubiszewski, I. Edward Elgar: New York, NY.
Quilley, S (2017) “Navigating the Anthropocene: Environmental politics and complexity in an era of limits.” PP 439-470 In Handbook on Growth and Sustainability Edited by Peter A. Victor, Brett Dolter. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Quilley. S. (2018). ‘Individual or Community as a Frame of Reference for Health in Modernity and in the Anthropocene’ In Health in the Anthropocene: Living well on a finite planet. By Quilley, S. and Zywert, K. (eds) Toronto University Press
Quilley, S and Zywert, K. (2019) ‘Livelihood, market and state: What does a political economy predicated on the ‘individual-in-group-in-place’ actually look like?’ in the 30th anniversary issue of Ecological Economics on the future of the discipline Ed. Kish, K. and Farley, J.
Quilley, S (2019) ‘Liberty in the Near Anthropocene: State, Market and Livelihood. What the changing I/We balance means for feminism, nationalism, liberalism, socialism and conservatism’ in in Liberty and the Ecological Crisis Freedom on a Finite Planet, 1st Edition Edited by Christopher J. Orr, Kaitlin Kish, Bruce Jennings (London Routledge)
Quilley, S (2019) ‘Liberty in the (Long) Anthropocene: The ‘I’ and the ‘We’ in the Longue Duree ‘ in Liberty and the Ecological Crisis Freedom on a Finite Planet, 1st Edition Edited by Christopher J. Orr, Kaitlin Kish, Bruce Jennings (London Routledge)
Stephen Quilley is Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, at the University of Waterloo, Canada. With a Ph.D. in economic sociology, he previously held positions Keele University, University College Dublin, the Moscow School of Economic and Social Science and the University of Manchester. Steve’s research interests centre on the interface between human ecology, political economy and historical sociology, centering in particular on the work of Norbert Elias, Karl Polanyi and Ernest Gellner. With his PhD student Anna Beresford, he is currently working on a ‘pattern language for traditional music’ – a study of intergenerational music cultures drawing on the work of architect Christopher Alexander. Steve lives in rural Ontario, with his wife Nikki who homeschools their four children. All musicians, his family spend most weekends playing traditional music sessions, participating in festivals and playing occasional gigs.