Thursday, 24 November 2016

Trump, Brexit and the twilight of neoliberalism

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen have just published an extended piece for Pluto Press drawing on a shorter one for the Sociological Review, looking at the "twilight of neoliberalism" highlighted in their book We Make Our Own History and how Trump and Brexit can be understood - and resisted.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism: theorising social movements in the age of Trump and Brexit

Abstract for a talk at Aarhus University's CESAU in December, together with the launch of a special issue of the journal Slagmark on neoliberalism:


In 2014’s We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, Alf Gunvald Nilsen and I argued that neoliberalism, like other forms of capitalism before it, had entered an organic crisis characterised both by a crumbling of the social alliances underpinning neoliberalism as a strategy for accumulation and by a global “movement of movements” against neoliberalism, running from global justice struggles around the turn of the millennium to contemporary anti-austerity movements. Indeed the widespread usage of the term neoliberalism itself is in large part a reflection of its adoption as a term enabling alliance formation between very different social movements. Underpinning this analysis is our wider rereading of Marxism as a theory of collective human action, in which both social order and social change are produced by the conflictual interactions between “social movements from above” such as that which gave rise to neoliberalism as an effective political project, and “social movements from below”, operating on many different scales from the local to the global.

Since writing the book, we have seen the EU’s austerity policies encounter crisis after crisis around the European periphery, while core EU states have seen multiple challenges from the right as well as the remarkable French experience of Nuit Debout. In the UK and US neoliberalism has been challenged on the left by Corbyn and Sanders and on the right by Trump and Brexit. The US election and British referendum neatly illustrate the operations of social movements from above, as well as the increasing difficulty of securing consent for neoliberal accumulation strategies; meanwhile in Ireland popular resistance to water charges has produced a situation of near-paralysis of state power in the attempt to impose neoliberal measures. The twilight of neoliberalism is precisely this situation – shared with some other world regions – where a once-hegemonic strategy of accumulation cannot sustain the social alliance it requires for longer-term consent and new initiatives. Meanwhile, new models – whether serious new elite strategies or powerful movements from below – are not yet able to impose themselves sustainably. 

In this context, I argue that it is important to take social movements and collective action – from above and below – seriously, rather than naturalising and eternalising the institutional structures of a particular historical period whose continuation, in the last analysis, depends on the outcome of these conflicts. To quote We Make Our Own History

“[W]hether neoliberalism is ending is perhaps not the main question we should now be asking. Such hegemonic projects have relatively short shelf-lives, induced by their declining ability to meet the interests of the key members of the alliances that underpin them. The real question is more one of how much damage neoliberalism will do in its death agonies; and, even more importantly, what (or more sociologically, who) will replace it and how.”
 
Laurence Cox

Environmental groups facing the petroleum industry: global perspectives

A short talk given to the "Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa" event on 10 November 2016, the 21st anniversary of the execution of the Ogoni Nine.



On Wednesday last week a Brussels-based anti-fracking campaigner wrote 

“things have been quiet on the fracking front. In England, faced with a fractured democracy, campaign groups are becoming increasingly creative and well organised. In Ireland, the Parliament has backed a Bill calling for an outright ban, meaning it progresses to the next legislative stage. Aside from having had to assist with a Twitterstorm, write to elected representatives and keep others updated with developments, there has been little else to do. Elsewhere in Europe, there has only been positive news to share of late: Poland’s last frackers pulling out and BNK Petroleum relinquishing another licence in Spain.”[1]

This Wednesday, of course, Trump won the US election, which casts a huge shadow over Native resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock and perhaps also to Keystone XL. We could say: what a difference a week makes. Or we could say: what a difference politics makes.  

This is often not how we talk about energy, where decisions on petroleum are treated either as a technical issue (by its supporters) or as a grim structural inevitability (by its opponents). But in practice the very uncertainty of petroleum extraction projects points to how far they are political decisions in the last instance.

This can be seen particularly in relation to tar sands, where in the boom years 2010 – 2013 producers lost $30.9 billion, of which 55% “can credibly be attributed to the impact of public accountability campaigns”[2]. It is also, of course, visible on a wider scale, in decisions such as that of the UK government to remove subsidies for renewable energy while passing legislation to facilitate the fracking industry and deciding to proceed with the 3rd Heathrow runway – or on the widest scale around the Paris agreement and the question of what it will actually mean in practice.

Politics, or more broadly social movements, is also an outcome of struggles over petroleum production. Anna Szolucha, who completed her PhD here, is now a Marie Curie research fellow working on energy democracy and popular resistance to fracking. She writes

“In places where the protesters managed to make the energy corporations abandon the drilling sites, the communities are organising in egalitarian ways and forming new renewable energy co-operatives. The aim is to take responsibility for meeting their own energy needs in a way that is local and mitigates climate change. May new local energy co-operatives and grassroots mobilisations against hydraulic fracturing reveal the potential for a repowering of democracy?”[3]

In other words, if we want to think about the future of petroleum we are talking not simply about inevitable technical or structural factors, but about politics: about how people organise on both sides to push or resist particular projects and alternatives. This matters to all of us, or at least to those who will live long enough to be personally affected by global warming or who have children and grandchildren.  This is why Ken Saro-Wiwa’s commitment to the struggle against Shell in Ogoniland, or the struggle against Shell in Mayo, matter far beyond the people involved: they are among the places where the future of the planet has been fought out.

In terms then of assessing the politics of environmental groups facing the oil industry:

·        The period of low oil prices since 2014, in large part a result of OPEC hostility to the new petroleum sources (fracking, tar sands, deep water drilling), has had the desired effect of making such projects much less likely to be profitable, and thus much less likely to be pursued, at least at present. However once a project has been signalled, this gives local opposition advance warning for the long process of organisation and education that is needed to win.
·        The shift towards “midge” firms, particularly in fields like fracking, is an added weakness. As we have seen, it is far harder to resist a major oil company like Shell, with massive reserves and a need to maintain a political image of strength, than it is to resist a small and in part speculative exploration company which cannot easily cope with declining prices and the costs of popular resistance. (For a reminder: Shell to Sea raised the cost of the Corrib Gas project from c. €800m to c. €3.5bn, quite separate from the costs involved in taking 15 years to build a pipeline). So the chances for effective resistance vary considerably in terms of the size of the company involved – bear in mind that the oil majors have bigger economies than many small countries.
·        With the Paris agreement in particular, we have started to see some light at the end of a long historical tunnel. If Graham Kay’s research explores the moment when a strategic commitment to secure petroleum reserves became a central motivation for great power politics, we are now entering a period where this can no longer be taken for granted, and where it is conceivable that major states can face the industry (and its associated industries, like the car and aviation industries) down. This does not mean, of course, that they always will: rather that other economic actors and considerations (rising sea levels, comparative costs, renewable energy) start to become thinkable alternative options for states. Indeed some petroleum companies themselves are investing increasingly in renewables, while divestment campaigns are having a surprisingly easy ride of it.
·        Lastly, as in Ogoniland a substantial proportion of new oil projects are in areas with significant indigenous populations, not least in the USA and Canada. Such populations are often fighting for their economic and cultural survival, and have less to lose in that they have fewer ties to national power structures than others. This is of course one reason for the often spectacular involvement and frequent success of indigenous resistance to the industry.

So these are broadly speaking background conditions. Environmental groups are, I think, winning more battles against the petroleum industry now than perhaps ever before. It is also important to remember that some defeats (like Rossport) represent Pyrrhic victories for the industry: the Irish state will think twice and three times before signing up to another project that might bring on the same kinds of conflict. This was, after all, the experience both of the nuclear power projects of the 1980s and of the UK government’s roads projects in the 1990s.

However the question of whether the light at the end of the tunnel is just a mirage is ultimately one of politics. On the dark side, as we can see with Trump and May, states are entirely capable of orienting towards petroleum for non-strategic reasons. Conversely, if Putin’s petroleum strategy has a logical geopolitical orientation, China’s relative openness to a gear shift shows an alternative kind of state strategy from a surprising direction.

On the light side, much depends on alliances. This is very obvious in relation to indigenous resistance, from the international alliance-building of Saro-Wiwa’s MOSOP to Standing Rock. However it is equally important elsewhere: between the “Lancashire Nanas” and eco-warriors in Britain, or between unions, churches and environmentalists in Norway. There are no guarantees here; and events like the Green Party’s presence in government here when the Navy was used against Rossport protestors show just how bad things can be.

So it really is up to us.

Laurence Cox

Friday, 16 September 2016

Occupy in Ireland and Oakland

Anna Szolucha's book on Occupy in Ireland and Oakland has just come out with Routledge as Real Democracy in the Occupy Movement: No Stable Ground.  It's still at academic hardback prices but can be ordered for libraries (and hopefully they will do a paperback in due course).

Here's the blurb:

The liberal representative model of democracy is in a crisis. In protest camps, neighbourhood assemblies and through other non-hierarchical initiatives, the Occupy movement as well as other recent anti-austerity movements are redefining democracy as a positive way to engage with this crisis. The more direct democratic models of organisation that they are employing are not aimed at making the politicians regain their lost public legitimacy. Instead, direct democracy is perceived by these movements as a radical alternative to the established forms of representation. Can direct democracy become an actual alternative to representative democracy? 

This book takes an engaged and in-depth look at the Occupy movement in Ireland and the San Francisco Bay Area in the US in order to present the most up-to-date evidence of the changing nature of popular democratic demands. It takes an insider’s perspective to analyse the internal processes and iterations of the movement. Establishing links between social movements and transformations of democracy, as well as underscoring the significance of the recent movements for the future of democracy, this book is essential reading for students, scholars and activists interested in direct democracy, social movements, and radical politics more generally.

Looking forward to hearing a talk about the book in Ireland!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Student activist weekend (Dublin, October)

People and Planet are organising an interesting-looking student activist weekend, hopefully free:



It's an exciting time for activism in Ireland at the minute as we're now starting to see students open their eyes and take action! At this weekend in October, students will be equipped with all the skills to run a campaign - how to plan strategic campaigns, get their cause into the media and organise creative actions.

It's set to be a very fun weekend packed with music and craic (and very cheap as we're hoping to keep the cost at €0)! Please see the attached documents for a rough guideline of the weekend. If you would like more information, feel free to contact me [crossonc AT tcd.ie] or check out our facebook event - https://www.facebook.com/events/1762452914007252/

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We are offering an opportunity for students across the country to network with one another and learn specific campaigning skills by taking part in engaging discussions and workshops. We want to welcome students who are already involved in activism or are new to the idea and want to learn more about how they can effect social change. 

This weekend will give you a chance to have discussions with like-minded people surrounding topics that interest you. Our workshops lend a space for you to share experiences and and gain practical skills for social change. Our main objective is for you to leave feeling energised with a supportive student network, relevant skills, campaign ideas and having made new friends.

People & Planet is a student network that exists in the UK and Ireland which campaigns to end world hunger, defend human rights and protect the environment. We’re a student-led movement that empowers young people with the skills, confidence and knowledge they need to make change happen, at home and globally. We can give you specific training in campaigns such as Fossil Free, Sweatshop Free and Ethical Investment while also equip you with the necessary skills to campaign for any issue you feel passionate about.


The weekend will run workshops with experienced student campaigners but will also give you a chance to socialise as a group through various fun activities with the aim to build an empowered activist network in Ireland.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The bells of Rhymney...

Just following up the history of Pete Seeger's 1958 song The Bells of Rhymney, familiar to many from the Byrds' 1965 version. The lyrics are by Rhymney poet Idris Davies, from Gwalia Deserta. Davies was a miner's son and worked in the pit for 7 years before an accident, the General Strike and the pit closing propelled him into becoming a teacher and a poet.

The lyrics are often taken as speaking for themselves but as so often the locations carry a lot of meaning, as comments here point out:

"As to the bells themselves the bells of Brecon and Wye are off the s Wales coalfield, which meant that they could be happy without the mass unemployment endured by the coalfield to the south. Neath is in the anthracite coalfield of s Wales, which didn't experience the depression of the 20s and 30s so severely. Caerphilly is just off the coalfield. Many miners from Merthyr and Rhymney traveled to pits in the Neath valley at that time. At this time the British government was talking of closing down Merthyr and transporting the people to England- hence the brown bells."

"As for the phrase "Throw the vandals in court" this isn't a reference to the coal owners. Because this cry came from Newport an area which suffered less unemployment in the 1920s than the south Wales coalfield, the cry to put the vandals in court refers to the militant miners of 1926, as they were seen as vandals who refused work and created social disturbance. From Swansea onwards Idris Davies is portraying the social unease felt by the more prosperous areas towards the south Wales miners."

The bells aren't agreeing with each other, they are voices in conflict (though Davies might also have been remembering the uprising of the Newport Chartists a century before). Here's the original poem (the song cuts the Brecon line in order to repeat the Rhymney line as chorus):

Gwalia Deserta XV
O what can you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.
Who made the mineowner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.
And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.
They will plunder willy-nilly,
Say the bells of Caerphilly.
They have fangs, they have teeth
Shout the loud bells of Neath.
To the south, things are sullen,
Say the pink bells of Brecon.
Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.
Put the vandals in court
Cry the bells of Newport.
All would be well if — if — if —
Say the green bells of Cardiff.
Why so worried, sisters, why
Sing the silver bells of Wye.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Hope in the dark

Just finished reading the updated edition of Rebecca Solnit's short book Hope in the Dark. It's not perfect - a bit US-centric and oddly hostile to the word "left" for someone who is so positive about the Zapatistas, desde el abajo y a la izquierda - but still a great antidote to the politics of radical despair. A good essay of hers linked to the book is free online here:

"We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision. And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both."

Friday, 15 July 2016

Keeping going in hard times

Sound advice from Harry Giles here on how to keep going when you're feeling terrible about politics.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Student funding - the "hard decisions"

The fix is well and truly in. Although the Cassells report - produced by someone whose state-imposed attempts at "mediation" in Rossport took the state's view so much for granted that the counter-forum is still an annual fixture there - supposedly presented 3 options, it is no secret that the preferred option is student loans.

This preference has been clear for several years reading the barely-literate stuff that passes for commentary on the part of mainstream journalists, academic managers and "policy experts" - writing which would barely pass if submitted as first-year essays, so much is assumed rather than argued and so little research is actually involved. The "hard decisions", we are told, involve accepting that student loans are the only possible way forward to fund the Irish education system, because the money isn't there to do anything different.

As Allen Ginsberg asked, "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?" Being part of the Irish elite, of course - the only people who think that student loans are the best thing since dance hall music.

Let's have a quick look at the Dickie Rock of 3rd level education policy.

The US now has a total student debt of $1.2 trillion (yes, trillion), second only to mortgages in terms of consumer debt and a real brake on purchases of things like houses and cars that drive growth in mainstream models. About 1/4 of these are “in delinquency or default”. Here’s a non-radical take on the scale of the problem: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americas-growing-student-loan-debt-crisis-2016-01-15
 
In Britain, 3/4 of students are unable to pay off their loans and the combination of student debt writeoffs plus net lending is close to equalling the entire 3rd level budget. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/student-debt-to-cost-britain-billions-within-decades-9970340.html

If ever there was a case of ideology-driven policy, student loans are it: they don't even work in the neoliberal terms they are supposed to. But - as with mortgages - the idea of creating a vast, "subprime" bubble of bad debts will no doubt offer some wonderful new money-making opportunities: in debt collection maybe.

Also in neoliberal terms: what those individual rationalists are likely to do, once graduated and faced with huge debt burdens, is to leave the country and take their education elsewhere. As already happens in other countries.

Notably, the pundits and experts involved in discussing all this have consistently called on US and UK "experts" - as with Irish Water, the people involved in making money from these failed systems - rather than asking people from the majority of European states (including many which are no better off than Ireland) where education is free or fees are lower than here: see e.g. https://www.studyineurope.eu/tuition-fees.

Various "concerned parties" used to wheel out the argument that because 3rd level education is classed (though far higher proportions of Irish young people go to college than in many western states, including our nearest neighbour, and we have relatively good proportions of mature students) it is iniquitous to put money towards it as against primary and secondary - a bit like arguing that you shouldn’t fund A&E departments because cancer and heart attacks is what will carry most of us off – but sounds clever when proposed in the student bar.

Incidentally whatever the payment model, 3rd level education is still massively subsidised by the state (as it should be). The real cost, at least as calculated for non-EU students (which it shouldn’t be but that is another story) is around 12 – 13k per annum. So all of this ideology is about the idea of paying for state services - most Fine Gael voters couldn't afford to send their little Johnnys and Marys to college if they had to pay its actual cost on a retail basis, but the idea of something just expensive enough to deter the plebs from doing so is pretty attractive.

Back to "hard decisions", though: the real hard decisions would have been not to guarantee private banks. Or to burn the bondholders. Or to refuse to go down the road of the farce that is Irish Water. Or for that matter not to waste state money fighting a case to enable multinationals not to pay the tax they should. Or not to hand over our natural resources to a different bunch of multinationals. Or, who knows, to raise taxes in a progressive way (ie asking the rich to pay more) rather than introducing one regressive tax after another.

Spot the difference? The "hard decisions" for right-wing hacks are those which come at the cost of ordinary people (and are "hard" because they might bump into that little problem of democracy). The ones they would actually find hard are the ones that might involve standing up to wealth and power. Those "hard decisions" are not on the table, and not to be found in the opinion columns.

Meanwhile, students continue to pay the price, as do teachers. Which is just as well for the opinionistas - the last thing they want is a population that knows how to think, and read, for themselves. People who might notice that this particular emperor has no clothes.

Laurence Cox



Sunday, 10 July 2016

Marx-Engels Collected Works at Maynooth




The Dept of Sociology at Maynooth, together with the Depts of English and Anthropology, has just purchased the new electronic edition of the Marx and Engels Collected Works (in English) for the Maynooth library. Originally published by Lawrence and Wishart from 1977 – 2005, these 50 volumes constitute the largest available collection of translations of Marx and Engels. Covering the period from 1835 – 1895, the collection includes all their major theoretical, political and historical works, their journalistic writings and several volumes of correspondence. Overviews of the contents are available here and here. The electronic edition is fully searchable, an important step forward in relation to Marx and Engels’ voluminous and complex work. 

The founder of the German SPD, Wilhelm Liebknecht, recalled:
Marx went (to the British Museum library) daily and he urged us to go too. Study! Study!  That was the categoric injunction that we heard often enough from him. Marx was a stern teacher – he not only urged us to study, he made sure that we did so. 

Dr Eamonn Slater of the Dept of Sociology comments: “With this magnificent new electronic resource we here in Maynooth are provided with an amazing opportunity to study how Marx and Engels studied the real world, not just to interpret that world but crucially to change it.”



Maynooth staff and students can access this collection in various ways, including this link, the “eBooks and eJournals“ page or Project Muse’s site (from outside Maynooth you have to log in for off-campus access first.) The complete text can be searched using the “Search inside this series” box.