Green Economic Democracy: in place of “isms”

A (fairly long) shopping list of what seem to be promising ideas.

Many an economist, or collective thereof, has produced what they intend to provide complete “systems”: accounts of how economies work – or could or should work if only governments and people at large did what the economists recommend. Each account that lives to see the light of day is called a “school”, often but not always named after the founder, and carries the suffix “ism”: classicism, neoclassicism, capitalism, neoliberalism, Marxism, etc; and an array of adjectives is applied to the shades of difference – Keynesian,   developmentalist, etc. Entire economies are planned around these schools and hence they largely determine the form the society takes, which in turn largely determines the life-chances and the fate of the individuals within the society, and what kind of attitudes they adopt: how they look at life and how they treat other people and other creatures. 

Within each school, some adherents take a fairly relaxed attitude to the underlying theory. They go along with whatever system prevails at the time and so long as life remains tolerable they presume that the theory must be OK. Others, though, are positive zealots. They see the underlying theory as an ideology, sometimes virtually as a substitute religion, and are prepared to die for it, and to kill or at least to sideline those who don’t conform, robbing them in passing of land, livelihood, culture, and dignity. Some schools are more likely than others to achieve ideological or quasi-religious status. 

Marxism and neoliberalism seem to arouse particular passion. For both of those systems-qua-ideologies are seen to embody ideals of far greater import than mere material wealth. Marxism reaches into the soul; in its most attractive forms it requires and encourages a life of selfless devotion to the wellbeing of the whole society — positively Benedictine; although – the downside – allegedly “Marxist” societies have often tended to be oppressive, curtailing  individual fulfilment. In absolute contrast the battle-cry of the neolibs is “Freedom!” — which in the modern, materialist, neoliberal world is largely equated with freedom of trade and of consumer choice: Cadbury’s chocolates or Lindt, Hyundai or Mitsubishi, while Tony Blair aspired to offer a wide choice of primary school, doctor, neighbourhood, and everything else – even though this is clearly not possible in a finite world with finite resources. To be sure, selflessness and freedom both seem desirable and although neither Marxism nor Neoliberalism ever seem truly to deliver what their followers hope for (people often feel unhappy and hard done by in either system), both seem to hold the promise of something noble that lies beyond material wealth – at least in the eyes of their followers. 

Each school-qua-ideology is presumed to offer a complete narrative and guide to living. But that’s an illusion. No economic prescription can offer certainties for the reasons outlined elsewhere in this website: that all fact is interpretation; that we can never predict the future accurately because we can never know everything that may be relevant and because cause and effect in real life is non-linear; that economics cannot be a science and science is not, as has often been supposed, the royal road to omniscience. So it is that no economic narrative – or any other kind of narrative come to that, short of divine revelation — can be more than a footpath through the forest of unknowns and unknowables. With luck the footpath may lead us to where we want to go but the content and the workings of the surrounding forest are beyond exhaustive understanding. Economic systems may be heuristic – helping us to navigate and to make some sense of an otherwise incomprehensible world. But (short of divine revelation) no narrative of any kind can ever be more than it is: a story that may well capture aspects of reality but cannot encompass all there is. All economic systems, no matter how complex and impressive, in the end are just footpaths. None should be seen as the whole truth or, as the Taoists would say, as The Way. 

Indeed, as Keynes observed (and many others too) the economy is or should be seen simply as a pragmatic device, or a series of devices – no more, no less; a mechanism or series of mechanisms that may help us to achieve some stability and justice (however justice is conceived) and at least to survive. The principles that underlie the economic theory may be simply stated – I suggest they should be those of morality and ecology – but the practice, in the rough and tumble and uncertainties of the real world, is bound to be messy. The search for an all-embracing, complete, coherent economic narrative that encapsulates the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and tells us all we need to know, is forlorn and foredoomed. Indeed, I suggest:  

The best we can hope to achieve is a shopping list of what seem like good ideas, each compatible with the underlying, bedrock principles of morality and ecology and each (with luck) leading us towards the Goal of conviviality, fulfilment, and oneness with the biosphere. 

So here to kick things off is my own personal shopping list, put together over the past few decades. It is highly heterogeneous — a mixed bag of moral precepts, desiderata, and promising wheezes (no guarantees). I tend to bundle all the various thoughts together under the broad heading of “Green Economic Democracy” but I do not pretend that this smorgasbord of bright ideas is a complete and coherent narrative and still less does is qualify as an ism. It isn’t even a recipe: just an inventory of essential ingredients from which to create recipes. But this is the best I can do – and, I’m inclined to suggest, though the details may differ, no-one can seriously aspire to provide much more than a list of promising notions. The economy in practice is bound to be messy. Be suspicious if it isn’t. The coherence is provided only by the underlying principles of morality and ecology – either or both of which, alas, all too often go missing.  So to begin: 

The broad underlying ideas 

  • The economy should be seen as a pragmatic device – not as a complete narrative and still less as an ideology
  • The economy must however be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality and ecology. 

Morality asks what it is right to do; and ecology asks what it is necessary to do (if we want to do the right thing) and what is possible within the limits of this Earth. In turn, the moral and ecological principles are rooted in precepts that belong in the realm of metaphysics: and the metaphysical/moral idea that matters most in this context is that of oneness (advaya): the oneness of all humanity and humanity’s oneness with the natural world. As so often seems to be the case, the ultra-competitiveness of the modern market economy leads us in precisely the opposite direction. The competition is meant to increase “efficiency”. It may do up to a point (the point of friendly rivalry) but all-out, to-the-death competition is a huge and damaging waste of energy and effort.   

  • The economy should have some end in mind – some Goal: which I suggest should to foster conviviality and personal fulfilment and keep the natural world in good heart. 

Contrast that with the crude materialist mindset of the neoliberals, encapsulated by Liz Truss’s “Growth, growth, growth!” Such single minded focus on an inappropriate and unachievable end-point at best must waste precious time and at worst – which means usually – must again lead us in quite the wrong direction. To measure growth as increase in GDP, as has become the norm, compounds the error.  

  • Individuals matter, society matters, and the biosphere matters 

It is remarkable how often economists and politicians forget one or other of these essential requirements and sometimes more than one: apparently content to offer visions that ignore society (there’s no such thing, said Mrs Thatcher), or indeed the wellbeing and peace of mind of individuals, or (as is usual) the natural world. What influential government or economic system has ever been truly “green”? And when has any major power-group ever truly embraced the principle of oneness? Any system or modus operandi that sells any one of the essential desiderata short is flawed – and most systems do sell one or several short. 

More specifically … 

  • No-one should have less than is needed to live with dignity and to achieve fulfilment. 

It is a sad state of affairs indeed and quite unforgivable that so many people should fall far short of what is so obviously desirable even in Britain – which is still the sixth richest country in the world. This is indeed an infringement of human rights. 

  • No-one should have so much that their wealth interferes with others. 

I think of once-thriving fishing villages throughout the world now packed with multi-million dollar yachts, floating fun-palaces built like mini-war-ships – which their owners feel they are entitled to. They take it to be self-evident that limitless possession is a “right”. “Rights” is a necessary concept but like all big ideas it can be and is most notoriously abused.  

  • But it isn’t just a matter of absolute wealth. Equality – or at least a just distribution of wealth — matters just as much

Absolute equality of income is not practical or sensible (some people need more than others, and some surely deserve more than others) but extreme inequality is very damaging in many different ways. There’s a thousand-fold difference in wealth and income between the richest and the poorest in Britain – a few million per year versus a few thousand. The Equality Trust told us in 2019 that the poorest fifth of Britain’s people share only eight per cent of the nation’s wealth while the richest fifth share 40 per cent. Most strikingly, Oxfam reported in 2014 that the five richest families in the UK are richer than the poorest 20 per cent. 

In The Spirit Level (2009) Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson tell us that nobody really benefits from such inequality – not even the rich, who may seem to be the beneficiaries. Physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – all are significantly worse for everyone when the economy is too unequal. On a considerable point of detail, it is impossible to decide a sensible price for food when it’s too expensive for some to buy at all in the necessary quantities, but seems so cheap to the rich that the price of it hardly registers. Yet Britain – one of the most unequal of the G20 countries – persists with the neoliberal brand of capitalism that inevitably and demonstrably makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, at least relatively and sometimes in absolute terms.  

Britain could solve its immediate economic problems and pay off the enormous debt created by Kwasi and Liz just by imposing a wealth tax on the rich. If the top few percent halved their assets they would still be rich beyond most people’s dreams, and if the money released was spread among the whole population and particularly among the poor, then everyone would be able at least to eat well and heat their homes. But as far as I know a wealth tax is not on the agenda of either of the biggest parties. To the present-day Tories or at least those to the Right of the party a wealth tax would be blasphemy. This, to them, is what would truly infringe human rights. 

It is also technically possible these days to build eco-friendly and attractive houses at prices that anyone ought to be able to afford. But this isn’t done, largely because land, like everything else, is treated as a commodity to be traded on the open market and sold to whoever offers the most loot. In my undoubtedly privileged corner of England four-bedroom “executive housing” with double garages are the order of the day. 

Some practicalities: a shortlist of wheezes and general notions that seem potentially to be of use: 

The tripartite mixed economy 

Traditionally, the mixed economy is taken to mean “public” ownership (by state or local government) plus private ownership. The tripartite mixed economy has three threads to it: public ownership, private ownership, and community ownership. Community ownership, the most overlooked, may be the  most important ingredient of all. (I got this idea from Martin Large. See Common Wealth, 2009). 

Social enterprise  

Social enterprises are businesses set up specifically to improve societies or the biosphere. Social Enterprise UK tells us that the UK has more than 100,000 social enterprises which employ around two million people and contribute £60 billion to the economy. Why shouldn’t all businesses be social enterprises?  

Positive investment 

Allied to this is the concept of “positive investment” – one step on from “ethical investment”. Ethical investment says in effect that individuals or pension schemes or whatever should not invest in things they don’t feel are morally justified, like, say, yet more executive housing on greenfield sites. Positive investment says that we should entrust our money only to those enterprises we feel are a positive good – like enlightened farms and some (but by no means all) forms of renewable energy. 

The middle-out economy 

Liz and Kwasi attempted to solve Britain’s economic problems by a “trickle down” approach, as favoured not least by Mrs Thatcher. The idea is to make the rich even richer by lowering their taxes in the hope that they will invest in new businesses and so generate even more wealth.  But rich people who are suddenly made even richer don’t automatically metamorphose into philanthropic entrepreneurs. They tend to hang on to their money or entrust it to some speculator or spend it on bigger cars thus creating jobs for armies of car-washers though that surely is not ideal. (See “How farming can lead the world out of its present mess” in the Archives).Or as Barack Obama said some time ago, “Guess what. Trickle down doesn’t work!”

Far better, many now say, is the “middle-out” economy: make life easier for the middle income group who in fact are the economy’s movers and shakers and, collectively, are by far the greatest consumers. Money should be spent on the poorest too of course, partly because that is humane and partly because many and probably most of the very poor could and would become productive citizens if only they were given a helping hand. Those who suggest that the poor are poor because they are lazy or feckless or generally inferior would do well to remember the old adage (which I thought came from St Paul though it evidently does not): “There but for the grace of God go I”. 

Universal Basic Income 

This means that everyone in society (over the age of 16, say) should be granted enough money to live on as a citizen’s right. The rich would get it too, but they could give it back in the form of taxes. Simple. Objectors say among much else that this would encourage idleness – but wherever UBI or something like it has been tried it has had the opposite effect: giving people breathing space, and the opportunity to start realizing their potential. Societies cannot function unless we have faith in other people’s good will – which, I suggest, is perfectly justified; to a large extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. More in The Great Re-Think and Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice.  

The minimalist economy 

Insofar as the neoliberal economy has any discernible goal at all it is, apparently, simply to make us all richer – or at least to make the rich richer. Growth, growth, growth, as Liz Truss put the matter. The natural world is seen as natural resource and we should aim it seems to commandeer as much of it as possible. Thus for some decades fishermen, foresters, and farmers have been urged to achieve the maximum sustainable yield, or MSY, as if this was self-evidently desirable. 

But, among other things, it is impossible to decide what the maximum sustainable yield ought to be – until we overstep the mark and collapse the whole system, as we have already done with many of the world’s fisheries. At the very least, serious ecological studies are needed over time to see what may be sustainable and what may not. But such is the crudeness of modern thinking, and such is the faith in economic theory, that them-in-charge have largely been content to let the market decide what’s sustainable and what is not. So wild populations of animals and plants are pillaged with bigger and bigger and smarter and smarter machines until it is no longer cost-effective to do so. But by the time a fishery, say, is uneconomic the populations of at least some species may be too low to recover. Blue whales were rescued (fingers crossed) in the nick of time. 

What’s needed, as usual, it seems to me, is a complete reversal of the current mindset. Instead of asking how rich we can be, and how much of the natural world we can safely afford to bring into our fold, we should ask how little we really need to live agreeably. In particular, instead of seeking to maximize our meat intake in the interests of profit, we should ask now little we need to ensure sound nutrition and fine gastronomy – which, as discussed elsewhere, is surprisingly little. And instead of snaffling as many fish as we think we can get away with we should adopt the strategy of many a traditional society and take from the wild only what we really need (and with apologies). With such an approach we could still live well, and if the society was more equal many or most people could be far more fulfilled than they are now, and be secure for as long as the Earth is habitable. To attempt to maximize consumption as is the current fashion, and is considered virtuous,  is insane.                                     

The circular economy 

The circular economy is currently taken to mean re-cycling. And indeed, if all the energy we use was infinitely renewable (or at least would last as long as the sun shines), and whatever was not renewable was re-cycled 100 per cent, and if consumption did not exceed the Earth’s capacity to provide, then we surely should be able to live and thrive indefinitely (or at least for many millions of years). 

But there is more to it than that. All machines include components that are long-lasting as well as bits that wear out; and some at least of those components are likely to be made from materials that are rare and really must be re-cycled, or be lost forever. Niobium is a case in point: a superconductor in much demand in modern high-tech.  So all machines should be built so that they can be easily dismantled at the end of their life. The long-lasting bits should then re-used (some bits may last a century or more) and whatever is rare and precious is carefully conserved, as jewellers conserve fragments of gold. Re-cycling in short should not be an afterthought. It should be built in from thje outset to the manufacturing strategy. (I got this idea from Hugo Spowers, managing director and chief engineer of Riversimple, a pioneer of hydrogen driven cars and trucks and what you will: a hugely promising technology). 

No-one should own land!

The concept of ownership runs through all discussion of economics and politics. Who should own what? What does or should “ownership” mean? Right of use or total control – carte blanche to do whatever we like with whatever we are deemed to possess?  Do any of us have right to own anything at all? 

For practical purposes most of us seem content with a common-sense approach. Thus most of us feel do we not that we have and should have absolute rights over our own socks or toothbrush – rights that few would care to dispute. Most would agree though in this day and age that when the toothbrush has run its course it should be disposed of in an ecologically acceptable fashion. Ownership of motor-cars is more problematical. Cars can kill other people as socks cannot (unless first stuffed with sand or snooker balls). Ownership of living creatures is even more contentious. There was a time and in some countries it still seems to be the case that people claimed absolute rights over their animals, and treated their dogs or donkeys or dancing bears exactly as they chose or choose. 

Then again, in a finite world, there’s the matter of fair shares. As St Gregory (Pope Gregory I) remarked in about 600 AD: 

“Those who make private property of the gift of God pretend in vain to be innocent, for in thus retaining the subsistence of the poor they are the murderers of those who die every day for the want of it”

All such issues and more are brought to a head in the context of land. As the 31-year-old Winston Churchill declared in a campaign speech in 1906: 

“Land, which is a necessity of all human existence, which is the original source of all wealth, which is strictly limited in extent, which is fixed in geographical position – land, I say, differs from all other forms of property in those primary and fundamental conditions” 

Quoted by Andro Linklater in Owning the Earth (2013) p 12

In this, of course, as in all big issues, there is a huge range of opinion. Some feel it is morally and politically acceptable for individuals and corporates not only to claim ownership of land, sometimes vast areas, but to treat it and its inhabitants more or less as they choose. Others are happy with the idea of land ownership but consciously or unconsciously acknowledge the chivalric principle of noblesse oblige: that whoever has power over anything at all must exercize that power responsibly, without cruelty or wanton destruction. Many landowners treat their land and the people and wild creatures who live on it as well as anyone could. The issue is not simple. 

Others though feel that the concept of land ownership is a kind of obscenity, or indeed a blasphemy. No-one should ever claim more than the temporary right to occupy portions of land and/or to make use of its fruits but no-one should be granted or grant themselves carte blanche. Traditional communities commonly find the concept of land ownership incomprehensible. The point is not that the land belongs to them but that they belong to it. Thus they feel the same about land as most us feel about our families. So we say “my father” or “my sister” or “my children” but we don’t feel we own them in the sense that we own our own trousers. We just feel we have right to their attention and care, and they to ours. Similarly, most of us happily talk about “my” school or “my” neighbourhood but we don’t feel we own them. We just feel we have a right to be there – “at home” as the expression is.   

One of the key thinkers on such matters was the American journalist and thinker Henry George (1839-1897). (Journalists are often the best thinkers – Defoe, Swift, Payne, Cobbett, Orwell etc. They are not tied down by academic convention and politicking). He argued that land should belong to everybody, which is to say to nobody; and people who occupy land or allow other people to do so should see themselves not simply as “owners” but as custodians. Whoever  improves the land (whatever improvement is deemed to mean) should have the right to benefit materially from their input.  But they should not benefit from any perceived increase in land value brought about by other people’s investment and efforts. For example, if someone builds or improves a house then they deserve to be compensated and indeed make a profit from their efforts. But if the house increases in value because somebody else, or the whole community, decides to build a railway station nearby and so puts it on the map, then the householder should not benefit from the resulting increase in land value. Some of profit should go only to the company or community that invested in and built the railway but the bulk should go to the land’s custodians, which ultimately means all of us. As George wrote in his most famous book, Progress and Poverty, in 1879: 

“I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land. The first would be unjust; the second, needless. Let the individuals who now hold it still retain, if they want to, possession of what they are pleased to call their land. Let them continue to call it their land. Let them buy and sell, and bequeath and devise it. We may safely leave them the shell, if we take the kernel. It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.”

This at least would put an end to speculation in land, which surely would be a step in the right direction.  For a few decades in the late 19th and early 20th century George’s ideas were taken very seriously in the highest circles and then — though he still has a strong following — he was more or less sidelined. He should be taken seriously again.  

Anyway: I reckon that Green Economic Democracy is needed to provide the infrastructure that’s needed to support Enlightened Agriculture, and that Enlightened Agriculture must at least be in the van of the people-led Renaissance; and the above outlines my own best thoughts so far. With a collective effort from people in the front line and from people far more knowledgeable than I, we surely could devise a system – messy but coherent – that could serve the whole world very well for aeons to come, and certainly better than almost anything we have seen so far. 



One response to “Green Economic Democracy: in place of “isms””

  1. Robin Tudge avatar

    Re the circular economy, 100% free power and recycling, it’d also be highly desirable for consumers. A problem with the Green movement has been the perception it’s all sackcloth and ashes and ‘you can’t have this!’, wholly anti-consumerism, in order to stop the throwaway society. But a controlled system for throwing away, i.e. recycling, would depend on a turnover of ‘stuff’ and with free power and near costless materials this would create huge scope for innovation and further, bespoke things.
    ‘Breathing space’ is also interesting, the Swedes have built in days off for staff who can’t be bothered, and that allowance to wake up and think, ‘I just can’t be jacked’, actually releases so much pressure you’re less likely to take it – and if you do, you’re fortified on your return, no call from HR, in fact accounts would say, ‘that’s great, fits our model’.
    And that comes back to the beginning, economic modelling, projecting what you want and think onto what everyone wants and thinks, confirmation bias, forgetting that the models by definition are stripped of 98% of reality in order to manufacture some kind of pithy conclusion to make a decision at the end of a 90 minute meeting and be sold in two minutes to voters / shareholders. Marxists, the Khmer Rouge, Brexiters, the Chicago School, all ranting about reality getting in the way of their models and they are indeed zealots.
    The UK is currently in the thrall of the Khmer Blukips, but with the six-week spell of the proteges of the Cell of Economic Affairs having shown up their venal idiocy, maybe we have hope.

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