Transition in an Age of Austerity

Geophysicals-scarcity

What is the potential for the Transition Towns movement in the current political climate? Is ‘Lambeth the Co-operative Council’ a legitimate solution for south Londoners? Just how dangerous is it to mix up constructed scarcities with geophysical scarcities when talking about how to build resilience into local communities?

These were the quesitons in my mind when I listened to John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception, at the launch of the RSA Student Design Awards last week. Thackara gave an overview of environmental challenges in design education and as usual he did a good job talking about sustainable design. His is a voice of reason in an industry that often neglects to addresses the consequences of its own activities. Nevertheless, Thackara’s support for Transition Towns and Lambeth as the UK’s first co-operative council deserves some attention.

As someone with first hand experience of Transition organizing in Lambeth, I need to stress that the movement is far from a panacea for this community’s problems. When I tried to highlight this issue from the floor as a question, I was cut off and the moderator reframed my question into an issue about labour rights. This might be a good question (but it was one that Thackara misunderstood and not the question I had in mind). This blog will examine how transition movements relate to the political realities in an age of austerity – and the serious dangers associated with using the notion of scarcities to justify austerity.

Design__transition2_page_06

Thackara has been singing praises for the Transition Town movement for several years at design industry and design education events. Mostly this is a good thing as it brings attention to climate change and peak oil into design discourses. Where I believe Thackara loses the plot a bit is his uncritical stance on the potential for Transition to support large-scale social change within the context of the neo-liberal consensus on austerity. After facilitating an unprecedented transfer of public wealth to the financial sector, the state is currently starting to impose harsh austerity measures. Without a thorough analysis of the politics of austerity, transition movements will have even more limited capacity to address environmental problems locally than we do today.

Tree_flier

As co-founder of Transition Town Brixton (TTB) (2006-2009), I have intimate knowledge of the potential for transition town (TT) projects in urban areas. Someday I might blog about the specific problems of urban TT groups but for now I just want to comment on the political potential of TT groups in an age of austerity. Thackara is especially enthusiastic about TTB and Lambeth as the first ‘co-operative council’. As a Lambeth resident and a community organizer in this borough, I would like to take a moment to shed some light on exactly what a ‘co-operative council’ in Lambeth actually means.

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I support co-operative principles as ways of organizing social movements, businesses and potentially even governance systems. This commitment to co-operative movements is the basis for the following critique. The word ‘co-operative’ is misused by Lambeth. The word is being used to put a friendly face on policies which are decidedly NOT co-operative. Instead, the basic right to be paid for the work we do is under threat. We will all be asked to work for free – or if we have jobs, there will be little job security. The public sector will now somehow be run by those of us who care enough about our community to work without being paid.

Some of us (the ones with compassion for others and/or concern for the environment) might not mind helping our community without being paid if we could afford to – and if this work was shared fairly between everyone. The thing about ‘co-operative’ is that it is a concept wherein the people involved decide on the terms under which we will agree to ‘co-operate’. What we have instead in Lambeth is a state imposing supposed ‘co-operation’ on us. This ‘co-operation’ actually means we will be expected to work for much less (or for free), we can expect few public services and we must compliantly accept austerity without questioning its premises. This is the actions of an authoritarian state imposing ‘co-operation’ on its people.

Austerity is presented as being the only alternative because the government owes such a massive debt after by bailing out the banks. After relatively unregulated financial markets caused the financial crisis leaving the economy at the edge of collapse, we have witnessed a massive transfer of public wealth to the financial sector. Meanwhile the rest of us will continue to have to pay for this banking bailout for the rest of our lives. The rich will continue to get richer as the public sector relinquishes its role in providing public services and austerity become normalized.

The government saved the financial sector with a huge transfer of public wealth to the banks. Now the state imposes austerity on the rest of us for the mistakes and irresponsible practices of the financial class. We should have shut down the risky activities in The City and punished banks for bringing the entire global economic system close to collapse. Instead they were rewarded with the bailouts and we are punishing everyone else.

Meanwhile, property in London is extortionately high due to the speculative bubble caused by excess capital created in the City of London. It does not help that elites from other parts of the world are buying property here at inflated rates. Big Society and ‘Lambeth the co-operative council’ expect us to provide public services without public funding. Very simply, we cannot work for free – housing is too expensive to make this possible for most people.

This is the political context of the ‘co-operative council’. It is impossible to understand what is going on in Lambeth without taking this context into account. Promoting the co-operative council without taking on board the reasons why the council must ask for librarians, community workers, etc. to work for free only supports the neo-liberal consensus on the legitimacy of austerity.

This new mode of co-operative councils is a desperate measure by Lambeth council to provide services in the face of dramatically shrinking budgets. When Thackara praises ‘Lambeth The Co-operative Council’ he accepts the austerity programme at face value. The austerity discourse tells us that people of Lambeth had better get used to it – there is no alternative to austerity. This is a failure of imagination only serves the interests of political and financial elites. It is wrong to mistake geophysical scarcities (brought on by peak oil, climate change and other threats) with constructed scarcities (brought on the the abuse of power).

Design__transition2_page_33

The best thing about organizing with Transition Towns is that in the process of organizing to try and make your community more resilient to climate change and peak oil you come to realize that there are structural problems that prevent sustainability from becoming possible in the current political context. In theory, Transition Towns is a good way to respond to current problems without getting demoralized about the political system. In practice, once we start organizing it becomes apparent that the people who care about the environment could work ourselves to death attempting to help but in the present political system, the priorities of the capitalist order will always trump any ecological or social efforts. Transition Towns are a step in the right direction, but if this movement is used to legitimize austerity and the neo-liberal assault on the public sector this is also an assault on our capacity to organise to protect the natural world and respond to climate change.

6 thoughts on “Transition in an Age of Austerity

  1. Judy,
    First, I’m sorry that you feel you were cut off at last week’s debate, especially you made some strong points – expanded on here – that deserve to be answered. Right now, I’m on deadline for another piece – but I will aim to respond here later in the week.
    John

  2. hi John, Thanks for posting. It was not you that cut me off, it was Paul – but thanks anyway! Mostly I am well aware that the work of talking about ecological realities to groups that don’t really want to hear about this is hard work so I really do not want to offend you. The talk did touch on some loaded issues for environmentalists (and others) at the moment so I was compelled to respond. It would be great to hear your thoughts on this when you have some time. Jody 🙂

  3. It would be nice to retire to my castle for a couple of years, like Montaigne, and compose a considered reply – but the best I can do, right now, is the following handkerchief-full of half-formed thoughts:

    1. You say that I “lose the plot on the potential for Transition to support large-scale social change”. Two things: first, I support but do not speak for Transition. Second,, I don’t think I had that plot in the first place. As a Trotsykist lad, it’s true, I was convinced that large-scale social change would come about as a result of permanent revolution – led my myself and a few mates. These days, I think of myself more as a member of a slime mould: we send seeds out into the world. We don’t have a plot, it’s true, but it’s what we do.

    Ellen LaConte has replaced Leon Trotsky as my political muse. In Life Rules, she explains how all living things today are descendants of bacteria, and bacteria recovered several times from catastrophic overshoot despite being just single celled creatures with no brains and no foresight. Her conclusion:
    ‘No small group of bacterial intellectuals or revolutionaries gathered in the microbial equivalents of a Philadelphia tavern, Paris cafe or St. Petersburg cellar to hammer out a survival plan to deal with global economic collapse. There was no top from which direction could come down to them. Our tiny, desperate predecessors had no choice but to sort it out for themselves. And, since they couldn’t sort it out effectively as individuals–one group’s success meant another’s failure and competition to the death–they had no choice but to do it together. And they did without brains, history, consciousness or conscience.’

    2. You warn of “the serious dangers associated with using the notion of scarcities to justify austerity”. But scarcities are not a ‘notion’ – they’re the defining feature of an extractive economy that’s run out of puff in a finite world. Yes, the state incurred massive debts to bail out the banks – but to no avail. The thermo-industrial system is dying because finance and energy are co-dependent and structurally flawed systems. That’s why austerity is not a political plot, or not only that. It also describes the reconfiguring of society to run on reduced resource-intensity. It’s not being done fairly, of course – but it does conform to biophysical reality.

    3. You continue that “without a thorough analysis of the politics of austerity, transition movements will have even more limited capacity to address environmental problems locally than we do today”.

    It depends on how you define politics. For me, the problem with politics is its radical separation from our life worlds. We need to repair that split. Many people in the Transition movement think along similar lines – but the way they respond is infinitely varied.

    4. You complain about my enthusiasm for Lambeth’s description of itself as the first ‘co-operative council’. I of course totally lack your direct experience as a Lambeth resident and a community organiser. But whether Lambeth has ‘mis-used’ the word ‘co-operative’ – or rather, interpreted it differently – is surely a moot point.

    You experience the council request that librarians, community workers, etc. work for free as “support for the neo-liberal consensus on the legitimacy of austerity”. Another interpretation is that social goods like libraries and care will not exist unless collectively enabled – so we may as well start now.

    5. “Very simply”, you conclude, “we cannot work for free – housing is too expensive to make this possible for most people”. I realise this, and sympathise; I know many people who are in a similarly shitty bind. I don’t think there’s an ‘answer’ – but I do think there’s an approach: cooperation and social solidarity.

  4. hi John-

    Yes, I see it is as perhaps the most important principle of making social change possible.

    One theme developed in the blog that you seem to have missed is the idea of constructed versus geophysical scarcities. I agree with you (partially) in 2: “scarcities are not a ‘notion’ – they’re the defining feature of an extractive economy that’s run out of puff in a finite world” – Yes this is true. This is a geophysical scarcity.

    There are another type of scarcity that is created by the excesses of elites – this type of scarcity is what I call a ‘constructed scarcity’. It is entirely different because humankind can build political systems that can keep constructed scarcities at a minimum. The economic crisis has created constructed scarcities – resulting in austerity. This constructed scarcities must not be mixed up with the very real types of geophysical scarcities you describe in 2.

  5. Hi both,

    yes it is essential to recognise that scarcities ALWAYS have a dual character – both ‘socio-political’ and ‘geophysical’, and are always both ‘real’ and ‘ideological’. It is also essential not to confuse the differences between the production and management of scarcities and the neoliberal politics of austerity. An awful lot of the ‘green’ movement are confused about this, especially those who erroneously believed that they had moved beyond left/right politics. It is essential that as the current crisis of capitalism unfolds the green left correctly aligns itself in relation to these social and ecological issues.

    As you know the Scarcity project has been looking at precisely these issues (see http://www.scibe.eu). The introduction to our recent publication ‘Scarcity – Architecture in an age of depleting resources’ considers the question of constructed versus real scarcities (and also has a great article by Jody!), and the intro is available free online here: http://issuu.com/wiley_publishing/docs/adscarcity

    I also deal with it in a shorter post on my blog which I paste a part of below: http://jongoodbun.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/scarcity-reality-and-ideology/

    Jeremy Till has presented the ‘Ten theses on Scarcity’ that we are currently developing as a book on a number of occasions. One of the theses deal directly with the question of austerity. You can listen to a few versions from links here: http://www.jeremytill.net/talking.html

    Scarcity: Reality and Ideology

    Scarcity is both a reality, and an ideology (a complex term, which I use here in the classic marxian sense of ‘false consciousness’).

    There is a system of production (capitalism.) Real ‘scarcities’ play real roles in that system.. ie there are real material and energy flows, which ultimately have a combination of natural and social foundations. At any one time there are limits to these flows – ie there are real scarcities.

    In addition, the concept of scarcity plays an ideological role. That is to say, it naturalises (it makes obscure) the social component of the limits of these flows: Those elements of the limits (at any given time) to material flows which are social in nature- ie determining who gets what proportion of the available materials and energy is according to a range of social constructs such as money, location, nationality – are obscured, and made to look inevitable, natural, the democracy of the market etc

    This is compounded when it is realised that those in the system who own and manage these flows have a vested interest in maintaining scarcities. Scarcities, the control of resources, are real social power. (In energy supply for example, big power companies are most obstructive to local generation, and most supportive of nuclear. And as I think Bookchin noted, a wind farm owned by a multi-natational power corporation is not an alternative technology!)

    Scarcity works dialectically with abundance, as the same system, at the same time as producing scarcity in the ways described above, also constructs ‘abundance’ as both a reality and an ideology. Most notably here, promoting the false consciousness that we can extract as much as we want from the planet… so, we literally get hit conceptually I both directions… and this keeps people confused!

    In both cases then, the key ideological role is to obscure the real workings of the system – and to make it seem natural, incomprehensible etc etc

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s