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Let’s play fantasy economics. Things could really get better

Andrew Sims, The Guardian
Do you grudgingly accept there is no fundamental alternative to how things are, hard times and difficult choices? Then come to Goodland. You might want to live here.

Its president refuses the state mansion. He gives away 90% of his pay, living on the national average wage to share in the struggles of his people. Goodland has a new constitution, written by citizens. When its financial sector fell apart, speculators had to take their losses and the guilty were taken to court, not given a public bailout.

The country has a dynamic, largely mutually owned, local banking system. It avoids bad risk and bends over backwards to help small businesses. In Goodland, human wellbeing is more important than economic growth. There is a national plan for good living, free health and education services, subsidised childcare allowing for a more equal workplace, and support for the elderly. It has a law enshrining protection of its life-supporting ecosystems that stands above all other laws.

Goodland’s cities are green and grow healthy, organic food for the inhabitants. A phase-out of most fossil fuels is planned by 2017, and its business sector has large, intelligently connected and productive cooperatives. A shorter working week is available by choice.

Utter fantasy? No. Goodland exists. It is just a little, well, spread out. Each aspect can be enjoyed in the real world, just not all in the same place. It’s like fantasy football, where you build your perfect team from all known players, but better. Fantasy economics is not limited by the supply of players, but rather grows from emulating best practices wherever you find them.
(17 February 2013)

Re-imagining a world beyond capitalism and communism

Arundhati Roy, Adbusters
Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still hope. If anyone can do it, we can. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonized by that consumerist dream.

We have a living tradition of those who have struggled for Gandhi’s vision of sustainability and self-reliance, for socialist ideas of egalitarianism and social justice. We have Ambedkar’s vision, which challenges the Gandhians as well as the socialists in serious ways. We have the most spectacular coalition of resistance movements, with their experience, understanding and vision.

Most important of all, India has a surviving adivasi (aboriginal) population of almost 100 million. They are the ones who still know the secrets of sustainable living. If they disappear, they will take those secrets with them. Wars like Operation Green Hunt will make them disappear. So victory for the prosecutors of these wars will contain within itself the seeds of destruction, not just for adivasis but, eventually, for the human race. That’s why we need a real and urgent conversation between all those political formations that are resisting this war.

The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come.

If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.

The first step toward re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment.

To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the waters in the rivers, the trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain? If they say they cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.

Arundhati Roy is a celebrated novelist. This article is excerpted from her recent book, Walking with the Comrades in which Arundhati reflects on her time spent with Maoist guerrilla insurgents in India.
(18 February 2013)

The End of Growth Wouldn’t Be the End of Capitalism

Noah Smith, The Atlantic
Everywhere we look, economic stagnation is staring us in the face. The United States seems headed for a "lost decade" (some would say our second in a row), Europe and Japan are doing arguably even worse, and economists like Robert Gordon are proclaiming the "end of growth."

David Graeber, the anthropologist sometimes described as the "anti-leader" of Occupy Wall Street, wrote in August 2011, "There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist — most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet."

This is a common refrain. When we bump up against our planet’s resource limits, the story goes, capitalism goes bye-bye. But is it true? Maybe, but I have my doubts.

First off, it’s just false that growth requires infinite resources. Economic growth comes in two flavors: (1) "extensive," where we use more inputs; (2) "intensive," where we use inputs in a more clever way to do more interesting stuff. The former must eventually hit a wall. The limits of the latter are completely unknown. Deride the "information economy" all you want, but it makes people happy and it sucks up a lot less energy than what came before it.

But this is a side point. The real question is: If growth does end, does our economic system go with it?
(21 February 2013)

Nationhood and the multitude: a new form of political subject?

Jamie MacKay, OpenDemocracy
In a recent article for OurKingdom’s ‘Re-birth of the nation’ series, Greg Sharzer produced a compelling challenge to the notion of a post-industrial “return to the land”, arguing that such measures frequently serve only as an ‘accommodation’ of the violence of capital. Localism, so he argues, looks to the margins to retreat from austerity and alienation, aligning itself, in the process, with an inevitable cycle of ethical, political and strategic failures. ‘Revolutionary socialism’ on the other hand attempts to unpack the economic contradictions and reveal human contingencies at the very heart of capitalism that structure such separations. While it might be apt as a technique of disruption, the former will never develop the agency to challenge power because it fails to harness the empowerment and educating potential of revolutionary class struggle. Citing this ‘class consciousness’ as a primary vehicle for social transformation, his argument concludes with a call for more integrated forms of urban protest and industrial action to combat the flexibility of neoliberal capitalism: “[a]gainst the globalized age of austerity, we will create our own globalized age of resistance”.

Of course, it is clear that it is not always the case – or essential to its definition – that local forms of organisation be understood as merely accommodating; rather, as Sharzer himself suggests, that they repeatedly fail to address fundamental questions regarding the base operations of property and capital. The concept of a non-local group, even in cyberspace, is, of course, impossible to imagine. His own example of ‘globalised resistance’, the European strikes last November, was the result of coordinated groups of locally organized workers, and, while emotive at the level of spectacle, such activities could hardly be described as revolutionary in praxis against the contemporary mechanisms of post-Fordist control. Certainly a vital corrective is required if Sharzer’s thesis is to be deployed as a vehicle for clarifying debate: that it is only when the channels of communication between such groups ‘devolve’ into being localist that the potential for resistance is dampened. In these terms, the ongoing tension between ‘accommodation’ and ‘resistance’ is not just tied to the intentionality of class struggle, but profoundly expressed in how groups interact though media, culture and technology.

More importantly, then, for those ‘returning to the land’, or indeed for Sharzer’s ‘revolutionary socialists’, is the question of when localism is rendered merely accommodating and what conditions of communication enable it to transcend into something larger; perhaps even global. Indeed is there anything intrinsically wrong with ‘returning’ to the land? In declining economies such as Italy, where there is much vacant farmland and mass unemployment, this small but viable counter-migration seems in itself a radical starting point from which to challenge the competitiveness of an increasingly disenfranchised urban life. The gap between this retreat and its solidification into struggle, and where Sharzer’s article is at its most provocative, is best understood by a question he notably evades: why must this movement be confined to the narrative of ‘return’? Despite considerable gains along the way – Sharzer is certainly correct that we shouldn’t be so quick to give up our schools, hospitals and factories – by not confronting this schism he fails to overcome the same problem that his supposedly docile subjects are so adamant to ignore: how can local – and national – struggles be made global?… .
(22 February 2012)

Nature and the economy: Marxism in an American labyrinth

Chris Gilbert, Climate and Capitalism
Although it is true that real socialism often made a fetish out of the development of productive forces, a Promethean or productivist disregard for the natural limits of growth is more capitalist than socialist in its inspiration. Still the productivist schema maintains such sway over the left that this radically anthropocentric attitude has often distorted Marxism or even supplanted the authentic Marxist view.

This might have been a minor problem at one point in history, but these days, with environmental disaster breathing down our necks, it constitutes an undeniable debacle on the level of theory.

The contradiction between the Promethean or productivist attitude on the one hand and Marxism on the other has had an especially bumpy trajectory in the Americas.[1] In his reflections on capitalist modernity, the late Bolívar Echeverría charts how capitalism, migrating from its Mediterranean origins, found new terrain for expansion in northern Europe and later in the Americas (especially North America). In these regions there was an opportunity for purer versions of capitalism, free from the complicated compromises with earlier social forms that had characterized capitalism in southern Europe.

Yet Echeverría also charts how northern capitalist behaviors — and the productivist, puritan attitudes they entailed — whatever their relevance in situations characterized by absolute scarcity, were clearly out of whack with the exorbitant natural abundance of the Americas.[2]

“Natural abundance” … “absolute scarcity”? In principle these factors should not have any role in economics, Marxist or otherwise. Classical economic science focuses — this is really how it defines its field of scientific investigation — on exchange values, prices, markets, etc., all of which are on the near side of the social-natural dyad… 
(20 February 2013)