Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Are You Ready For a New Kind of Left-Wing Politics?

Podemos taking on Spanish establishment. EPA/Emilio Naranjo
by Juan Pablo Ferrero, University of Bath

The recent electoral performances of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece suggest that left-wing politics is changing.

Groups are emerging all over Europe that seek to move away from the left of the past and offer an alternative to incumbent governments.

And with a wave of left-of-centre coalitions coming to power in many Latin American countries over the past decade, it’s clear that the movement is global.

The far right has been making headlines across Europe by appealing to a disillusioned electorate with anti-immigrant and eurosceptic rhetoric. These parties have shaken up the European scene but have also engendered the rise of another kind of politics.

The basic democratic principle of having at least two rival positions competing for the attention of voters has reactivated the left in response to the regressive politics of the right. And it’s perhaps not surprising that the first significant electoral gains were made in Spain and Greece, where the financial crisis has hit the hardest.

Identity crisis

There are historical explanations as to why the left has lagged behind the right in providing new political ideas. One of the most significant is the crisis of real socialism and the loss of real political alternatives to liberal-capitalist democracy - with Cuba acting as the exception.

The political parties of the left in Europe underwent significant transformations as they ruled out socialism and accepted capitalism as the only game in town. But they resisted changing their names, holding on to terms such as “socialist” and “labour”. By failing to change their names, even as they changed their views, these parties prevented a much-needed existential debate from happening.

Capitalism took over and all major political parties moved to the ideological centre to justify their existence. This convergence effectively made any remaining political differences insignificant.

Where voters used to see differences in manifestos and policies, they now only see differences in the personal images of their politicians or the style they adopted. Opposition parties no longer present any meaningful alternative to the establishment.

Power to the people

After this turmoil, the left-wing in Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina offered a breath of fresh air. Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the region, elected a former metal worker, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as president in 2002.

In Bolivia, where around 60% of the population recognise themselves as indigenous, the first indigenous president was elected in 2005.

These governments emerged from trade unions and social movements that contested neo-liberal policies such as structural adjustment programmes. They are lifting people out of poverty and are reducing inequality.

The left in Latin America has the advantage - and also the disadvantage - of being part of governing coalitions. In Europe, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are two of the newest and most prominent political fronts making inroads in national and regional elections. As in Latin America, they have emerged as a result of social mobilisation from below.

Podemos grew out of the largest street mobilisation Spain has seen since the transition to democracy. Syriza appeared in Greece when a change in government failed to deliver enough change to tackle mass unemployment.

These origins make the “present left” different from the “new left” of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the “old left” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the earlier movement, it maintains ties to the social movements that brought them to life but unlike its predecessor, it is less prejudiced against open elections and political pluralism.

In stark contrast to the old left, these emerging parties are sceptical about answering to unions. It is the social movements - the less institutionalised, more open and eclectic groups - that dictate the political orientation of the parties. This is a more democratic approach, it also turns decision-making into laborious process.

The Present Left is creating a new political space and is allowing new voices to be heard as decisions are made. These parties see themselves as political but also as cultural movements. To them, the struggle for a new political common sense appears as important as gaining institutional governance.

They take language and rhetoric seriously and see both as fundamental political instruments. That’s why they can appear aggressive in their communication strategies as they bid to provide a counterbalance to mass media coverage of politics.

This secular, agnostic left resists traditional labels and works under the premise that creating the conditions for change remains as important as gaining institutional control. These parties are recreating the notion of opposition. And, as they grow, they are bringing back a meaningful voice to the people they seek to represent.
The Conversation

Juan Pablo Ferrero does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Reconciliation Through Resilience: The Hard Work of Peacemaking From the Ground Up

City Hall, Belfast, with statue of Queen Victoria
City Hall Belfast with statue of Queen Victoria (Wikipedia)
by , Slugger O'Toole:

Following the news is a particularly depressing activity most days.

With war, suffering and division making headlines, a person would be forgiven for thinking that seven decades after the defeat of Nazism, 20 years after genocide in Bosnia, and over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, humankind is marching away from progress and civility, not toward it.

Here in Northern Ireland, we can be grateful that the gunmen and bombers no longer stalk our streets, murdering innocent people in their beds and blowing people up on their way to work. But we still despair at the nasty tone many of our politicians use, their inability to find compromise, and their seemingly infinite tolerance for political brinkmanship.

And with depressing regularity we are collectively shamed by the harassment and intimidation of ethnic minorities who have arrived on these shores hoping to forge good and productive lives for their families and communities.

As we navigate dangerous moments at home and watch our foreign policy play out abroad, there is reason to despair. But what we often forget - and what the media rarely reminds us of - is that there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful as well.

And for concrete examples of that, we need look no further than a gathering taking place in Belfast this week of people working in the local governments, business sectors and voluntary organisations of 16 of the world’s most divided cities.

Some of these cities have put their troubled pasts behind them - Belfast and Derry-Londonderry, Berlin, Sarajevo - while others are in the throes of war right now: Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Tripoli in Lebanon.

Part of a group called Forum for Cities in Transition, delegates meet every year to share experiences of building and rebuilding in places where the odds for success - sometimes even the odds for survival - seem long.

This year Belfast will play host, sharing its story of transformation under the theme Promoting Reconciliation Through Resilience. The gathering aims to promote and support grassroots solutions and concrete outcomes from the many discussions that take place there.

The forum is organised around a simple principle: it is the cities that are transitioning away from division and conflict that are in the best position to help other cities through similar transitions. The interesting thing about this gathering is that the focus is not solely on the high-prestige, high-media value work of peace talks, nor does it concentrate on headline-grabbing acts of violence and war.

Instead, it understands that all cities, but especially cities in transition, have common problems ranging from policing to garbage collection to road construction.

And in addition to those issues, which are hugely important in the every day lives of citizens, many cities experiencing conflict must also identify flashpoints that trigger violence and develop mechanisms to control and contain such outbreaks.

It is this mundane work that allows some semblance of normal life to continue in many of these strife-ridden places - and it also fails, for the most part, to make headlines.

The old newsroom adage, ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ is true not just in tabloid culture but also applies to the fact that with the media in general, division, rancour and in-fighting get much more media coverage than the painstaking work of coming together.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Connective Action: The Public's Answer to Democratic Dysfunction

Cambridge University Press
by Lance Bennett, University of Washington

In the closing decades of the last century, many political and business elites were swept up in a global wave of policies favouring free markets, deregulation of business and finance and privatisation of public goods and services.

Accompanying this updating of classical liberal thought (termed neoliberalism), public discourses focused on private lives organised around consumerism as a defining element of individual freedom.

Economic globalisation dating from roughly the 1970s also produced dramatic shifts in social organisation and citizen orientations in most post-industrial democracies.

Most notably, membership in civil society organisations and loyalties to parties and political institutions - particularly among younger citizens - have been eroded.

In most OECD nations, the largest groups of voters under 30 are now either apolitical or independent. These trends appear to be generational shifts.

Collateral damage from these changes includes the graying and fragmentation of audiences for serious journalism. Commercial print media are in crisis nearly everywhere. Public service broadcasting is looking in vain for formulas that attract news audiences under 40.

Electoral politics succumbs to marketing

Under these circumstances, electoral politics has become less ideological and more personalised in ways that resemble consumer marketing and branding. Voters need to be resold every election.
The result is that the costs of conventional politics have soared in nations such as the US.

Election spending has grown nearly exponentially as parties and candidates send more messages to relatively small numbers of hard-to-reach middle voters. And they suffer sensory overload and general disdain for the political process.

The legalised flow of money into politics has introduced elusive forms of corruption that undermine popular representation and discourage citizen trust.

To fill in the picture of democracy in the 21st century, I should add the following observations. Inequality is on the rise, led by the two neoliberal pioneers, the US and the UK, but rising in most OECD nations, including Australia.

Neo-nationalist and racist movements have sent disquieting numbers of representatives into national and EU legislatures. Some scholars are asking whether the term democracy really any longer fits former standard-bearers such as the US and if plutocracy is a better term.

As if this were not enough, economists are telling us that global economic growth since the Second World War was unprecedented in the history of market economies. These growth rates are unlikely to be repeated.

The environmental crisis further undermines the prospects for sound economic recovery. It also threatens rising sea levels, as well as safe energy supplies, food and water, and other essentials of human security.

All of this strains against the capacity for creative thought and effective action in the neoliberal power centres of Beijing, Washington, London or Canberra.

Popular frustrations with politics find another way

With conventional politics in a state of drift, popular frustrations have fed protests. These are challenging the legitimacy of governments that are perceived to be corrupted by business interests and unable or unwilling to represent broader publics. However, just beyond the horizons of most national capitals is a thriving sphere of public engagement and concern.

The past decade has seen the largest organised protests in the histories of many societies. Large transnational networks are forming to deal with critical issues such as climate change (and related problems of food, energy and water), human trafficking and models for more sustainable economies.

Some protest networks have emerged rather spontaneously using social media. We saw this in Tahrir Square, the Spanish indignados and Occupy in 2011, and in the flash mobs of Chinese environmental and corruption protests.

Other large networks are enabled by the growth of issue-advocacy NGOs, along with hybrid organisations like Avaaz, Getup! and Moveon. Such groupings use online organisation to mobilise people around issues they care about personally.

These emerging forms of public mobilisation differ from conventional models for aggregating support and mobilising participation.

Once this involved joining groups, forging collective identifications and marching under common banners. Citizens coming of age today tend to seek personally expressive modes of action about problems they can share with others via personal communication media.

Those others are less likely than their cohorts from past eras to be assembled via connections to party, union, church or club. They are more easily joined through social networks, friend circles, trusted recommendations, media sharing (photos, videos, mashups) and technologies that match demographic and lifestyle qualities.

The result is that political partners and activities align across loosely tied, opt-in/opt-out networks. While these personalised, networked politics are often scattered, disorganised or ineffective, they can display remarkable capacity to get things done.

Since the 1990s, consumer activists around the world have directly pressured business sectors to clean up their acts and lift environmental, labour and product safety standards.

In recent times, Icelanders pressed for a new constitution, Egyptians overthrew a corrupt government, Spaniards opened a discussion about democratic legitimacy, and Occupiers the world over sparked a discussion about inequality and democracy.

How is this different from past protest movements?

The question is how well these actions articulate with government reform and public policy change. The issues championed by technologically networked publics may resemble older movement or party agendas in terms of topics such as environment, human and labour rights, women’s equality, or economic justice.

However, the shifts in underlying social structures and communication processes have undermined old political mechanisms for spreading ideas and organising action. The networked society favours more personalised expression and connection than the old organising basis of social group identity, party membership, or ideology.

People still join actions in large numbers. The identity process, though, is built through inclusive large-scale personal expression rather than more exclusive group or ideological identification. Driving the shift away from formal organisations are digital media technologies and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague Alexandra Segerberg and I have termed these emerging forms of democratic mobilisation “connective action”. We elaborated on them in our book, The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics.

When enabled by the often-dense layers of communication technologies, crowds can display remarkable levels of persistence, agenda-setting and issue-framing. They employ flexible political targeting as opportunities and official reactions change the arenas and conditions of action.

Most conventional collective action relies on centralised coordination, community organising and broadcast media campaigning. Connective action operates on a different political economy. It is based on voluntary self-expression, which is shared and recognised in the process of forming large social networks.

This sharing economy often takes hybrid forms. Organisations use different communication logics to organise publics along different citizenship styles.

Thus, NGOs such as Oxfam may still engage those comfortable being formal members on issues such as the world food crisis by using conventional methods of issue education involving one-to-many communication.

Younger social network-oriented citizens may be engaged more effectively by enlisting celebrities such as the rock band Coldplay. They activate fan networks sharing much more personalised understandings about food and world hunger.

We have explored how these hybrid forms of connective action may work across societies as different as the US, Australia, China and Egypt.

Many democracies have experienced declines of civil society membership organisations as unintended byproducts of neoliberal policies. Authoritarian regimes have actively policed civil societies to weaken independent citizen organisation. The ironic result is that civil societies have become more atomised and personalised in both systems.

And where social technologies have become relatively available, the processes of connective action look remarkably similar.

Can connective action prevail in the modern state?

The Chinese and Egyptian governments have learnt to take much more seriously the political uses of personal media. Heightened surveillance and censorship restrict networked publics and popular mobilisations.

With the revelations of US National Security Agency spying on the personal communications of citizens in many countries, one wonders if an open networked public sphere is even safe in the democracies.

The commercialisation of internet access and many technologies used for political organisation adds to worries about the future of connective action.

Whether surveillance and commercialisation will undermine the potential for connective action remains to be seen. However, many of the above examples have been criticised as mere “clicktivism” that is unlikely to have the same impact as old-fashioned movements and parties.

While connective action may have less of a public policy impact than old-fashioned collective action, many critics fail to note the changes in social and political structures that shift the foundations for political organisation.

The rise of neoliberal regimes has limited political responsiveness to many progressive causes. If conditions for political mobilisation and government responsiveness have changed, then the basis for understanding and evaluating emerging forms of organisation and action must also change.

What remains clear is that for meaningful action to be taken on the environment or sustainable energy and economic policies, governments must be open to political reforms and new policy directions.

It is far too simplistic to assume that if majorities of citizens really wanted such changes, then governments would follow. Majorities in most nations are waiting for effective government actions on a host of pressing problems.

At least while they wait, they have access as never before to communication media and strategies for using them. This connective action helps large national and transnational publics discuss important issues, discover their voices and take action.

This is an edited and condensed version of a public lecture delivered at an Australian Political Studies Association plenary session at the University of Sydney on September 29, 2014.
The Conversation

Lance Bennett receives funding from The National Science Foundation, US, and The Swedish Research Council

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Whitlam’s Forgotten Legacy: a Voice For the Poor

Gough Whitlam
Gough Whitlam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Fiona Davis, Australian Catholic University

Former prime minister Gough Whitlam, whose death at age 98 was announced on Tuesday, left significant legacies from his short time in office. Whatever their condition today, many of his government’s initiatives, including free tertiary education, will long be remembered.

Yet there is another legacy that is largely overlooked: the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into Poverty.

Whitlam advocated for this inquiry for years before then-prime minister William McMahon finally agreed in August 1972. In doing so, McMahon instituted an impressive political backflip in the face of a looming election.

McMahon lost the election and Whitlam moved quickly to expand the scope of the inquiry. He appointed four new commissioners to join the existing commission chair, Professor Ronald Henderson. They were to investigate specific aspects of the scourge of poverty affecting increasing numbers of Australians, including race, education, health and law.

Henderson had conducted an earlier study of poverty in Melbourne, during which he had set a poverty “line”. Essentially, the line was a measure by which we could tell who was and who was not experiencing poverty in our society. The inquiry is best remembered for refining and popularising that line, however contentious its usage is today.

But the inquiry did more than consolidate a poverty line. It commissioned 34 research studies and two national surveys. It attracted more than 400 written submissions. Some 180 of those submissions were followed up through public and private hearings around Australia.

“Poverty is not an academic question,” Whitlam had argued in one of his many attempts to get such an inquiry up. “It’s a moral question.”

In answering this moral question, Henderson made two major departures from Australia’s traditional approach to thinking about the poor. The first was that he blamed not the individual, but the structures of our social order.

The second: he listened to the poor. Others had made such attempts in the years leading up to the inquiry, but never had they done so as publicly, nor with such endorsement from the federal government.

Henderson made his approach clear in the introduction of his first main report. He wrote:
Poverty is not just a personal attribute: it arises out of the organisation of society.
To be a woman, to be single, to be Indigenous, to be old, to be born overseas, to have a large family: these attributes alone could mean a person was poor. Being poor also meant being humiliated. Henderson quoted from a Tasmanian Council for the Single Mother and Child submission to make this point.
When first making application for an allowance the single mother rapidly discovers that if she is ever to get to the point of seeing a welfare officer she must relinquish any ideas of pride, dignity and the right to personal privacy.
The council was one of many organisations that spoke on behalf of the poor. The words of the poor were not always filtered, however: at times individuals spoke directly to the commissioners.

Many of those records are kept today in the University of Melbourne Archives. To date and to our detriment, they remain largely untouched. Sifting through them, I was struck by the enthusiasm of one Aboriginal man, who seemed pleased to have finally been asked what he thought. His two-page submission began:
Being affected by personal and cultural deprivation I have not been able before this to respond to the challenge and oppornunity [sic] to speak for the poor people and Aboriginal people of this country.
It is testament to a level of generosity of spirit that he was prepared to contribute to a system that had treated him so badly and ignored him for so long.

At the centre of the inquiry’s final recommendations was a guaranteed minimum income scheme. Such a scheme, Henderson argued, would place “a minimum disposable income … as one of the rights of Australian citizenship".

Under this system, Henderson continued, there would be:
… no longer any hierarchy of deserving and undeserving poor, categorised according to administratively awkward tests, with all those unfortunates at the very bottom of the hierarchy not entitled to any income at all.
Henderson’s report was presented to Whitlam in April 1975. In the face of economic decline and other political pressures, the minimum income proposal proved a progressive step too far even for Whitlam, at least in the short term.

That November, Whitlam was dismissed.

While Whitlam was not in power when the inquiry was announced, he drove its introduction. In expanding its focus and allowing it to run the length of his time in office, he made possible a new and kinder consideration of the problem of poverty in Australia.

That inquiry left Australians with a poverty line that provided a way of - at least to some extent - gauging the level of poverty in our communities. That line continues to be updated today.

It left Australia also with plans for a minimum income scheme. While doomed, they represented a climate of real optimism, when structural reform to alleviate poverty appeared a real possibility. Perhaps most importantly, though, the inquiry heralded a new way forward in terms of listening to the poor.

Revisiting the records of that inquiry means hearing from many ordinary Australians who, often for the very first time, found a voice in the national debate on a topic; who told of the realities of poverty as it applied to their world. This legacy of Whitlam’s - while often overlooked - is one worth revisiting.

Editor’s note: Fiona will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 9:30 and 10:20am today (October 23). Post any questions about Whitlam’s inquiry into poverty and its legacy in the comments below.
The Conversation

Fiona Davis does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Canopy of Deadening Silence: The Beijing Media Assault on Hong Kong Citizens

Ping-pong in Mok Kong (The Hindu)
by John Keane, University of Sydney

Now entering its third week, its numbers dwindling but its determination and purpose still remarkably strong, the umbrella uprising in Hong Kong has shown its playful side, by bringing ping-pong to the city streets.

Not everybody is impressed. Several days ago, at the Mong Kok protest site, an angry citizen caused a commotion, blaming protesters for having too much fun.

The man said he was outraged by the now-viral photos of people eating hotpot and playing ping-pong on the streets.

‘What is democracy?’, he yelled, not expecting a reply. ‘Have you ever seen protesters in other countries playing table tennis and having hotpot when they fight for democracy?’

A crowd quickly gathered, as the misery guts complained loudly about the transformation of Hong Kong’s thoroughfares into a playground. After protesters appealed to him to calm down, police officers led the man away. There were no reported arrests.

As a gesture of respect for their fellow citizens, the ping-pong table was soon removed by protesters, leaving them to concentrate on a much deadlier game: a vicious media assault on everything they stand for by ping-pong propagandists in Beijing.

Last weekend’s open letter to Xi Jinping from representatives of the umbrella movement is an appeal for open dialogue with the ruling powers, whose media attack on Hong Kong appears to grow nastier by the day.

‘The West always brags that its own democracy is a “universal value” and denies there is any other form of democracy,’ notes the influential Communist Party journal ‘Seeking Truth’ or Qiushi.

Citing violence and political turmoil in countries like Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq, all of which have conducted recent experiments with democratisation, the truth-seeking journal insists that ‘Western democracy’ never suited all countries. ‘Western democracy has innate internal flaws and certainly is not a “universal value”; its blind copying can only lead to disaster.’

The implication of such talk is clear: China’s own system of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is the best way to govern the world’s most populous nation, the most effective way of dealing not just with unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but a form of one-party government that can lift all citizens of China towards dignity, amidst plenitude.

This way of thinking about democracy naturally rounds on every public effort by citizens to carve out spaces that enjoy independence from the octopoid Party apparatus.

What we are seeing clearly in this developing Hong Kong crisis is that monitory democracy or what Chinese citizens call jiān dū shì mínzhǔ - free and fair elections plus open public scrutiny and restraint of power, wherever it is exercised - is anathema to the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Their heavy-handed but often subtle media campaign against the umbrella uprising is living proof that they not only dislike monitory democracy. For understandable reasons, they fear it.

According to the CCP counter narrative, itself backed up by heavy censorship of all independent reports on the unfolding crisis in Hong Kong, the uprising is not really a demand for democracy at all.

It is (the stock phrases are commonplace) a dangerous conspiracy against the national interest, an assault on the dignity of the state, a threat to social stability, and a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China.

During the past several weeks, news websites have been instructed to republish ‘open letters’ lambasting protest organisers and warning that ‘Western democracy is no panacea’.

A column in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily dubs the Hong Kong protests as a form of ‘anti-democracy’ led by a minority of people who are ruining the public interest for their own selfish political views, so trampling all over the basic principle of democracy that the whole people are sovereign.

Commentaries published on the State Council Information Office blast the protest organisers for using ‘populism’ to seduce young people, and for failing to see that ‘street politics’ will never succeed in altering the bottom line: loyalty to the state.

CCTV meanwhile tries to discredit the umbrella uprising by using infographics that portray it as ‘an illegal gathering’ backed by ‘foreign forces’, principally the United States. The same slant is surfacing in the extensive media coverage being given to Vice Premier Wang Yang, who warns during his current visit to Russia that Western countries are plotting a ‘colour revolution’ in China.

Online satirists and jokesters have been busily trying to strike back, in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. ‘If nearly 1.4 billion people in mainland China are benefiting from the world’s best society’, writes one microblogger, ‘why not share it with Hong Kong’s seven million and Taiwan’s 23 million residents, instead of letting them suffer in the capitalist world under the “one country, two systems” principle?’ Good question!

Another satirist with practical intentions notes that if Hong Kong carries on ‘disobeying central government and disturbing social disorder’ then Beijing ‘could simply cut its water supply, leaving them to drink sea-water’. Good suggestion!

Disapproving censors have been lightning fast in their response. Sensitive keywords and phrases on social media platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat are currently blocked. Occupy, open umbrella, umbrella revolution, central government, student leaders are among the words on the hit list. So are ‘stand’ (站 zhàn), a word that sounds the same as “occupy” (占 zhàn).

Even references to Xi Jinping as ‘Master Xi’ (主习 zhǔ Xí) are forbidden, simply because the phrase, which sounds the same as ‘chairman’ (主席 zhǔxí), conjures memories of Mao.

Then there are the poisonous attacks against the whole of Hong Kong society. One of them, purportedly written by a member of the Hong Kong legislature, and repeatedly re-published, re-titled and re-circulated throughout Chinese media, predicts the enforced humbling of Hong Kong as a global city hub.

‘The real problem is Hong Kongers’ sense of superiority towards mainlanders’, insists the anonymous grubber. Most of them ‘have no awareness of changing patterns of development, and thus are not psychologically prepared for economic restructuring.’

Hong Kong citizens ‘stagnate in muddle-headed confusion’, says the sniper. They resemble ‘peasant farmers unable to see beyond their tiny tract of land’. Yes, peasant farmers.

They fail to realise that the rise of mainland China spells an end to their special status. Reform is now imperative, but for that to happen ‘Hong Kong’s economic situation must first fall far below that of China’s coastal cities.’

One thing is clear, says the writer: more effective administration is mandatory. When government behaves like ‘a blindfolded donkey’ led by ‘the millstone of public opinion’ it becomes dysfunctional.

Mixing metaphors, the sniper likens Hong Kong’s government to a car without a steering wheel, a ‘reckless’ vehicle thrown this way and that by the ‘potholes’ of ‘public sentiment’. Hence the firm conclusion: ‘Without a steady direction for policymaking, blindly following public opinion means that policy will constantly flip-flop’.

What is the significance of this state-produced propaganda? To what extent are mainland Chinese citizens aware of the Hong Kong umbrella uprising? Is there much sympathy for the umbrella protesters’ main demand (that Hong Kong citizens be granted the right to free and fair elections, and a different way of life)? Or do Chinese citizens mainly blame students, radicals or foreign governments for the disorder, in support of the official view?

The answers to such questions are unclear. Gauging ‘public opinion’ is notoriously difficult in China, where open public communication on sensitive topics is typically restricted.

Whether, and to what extent, Chinese citizens believe the official stories is unknown. In any case, whether or not they believe this or that may well be beside the point, simply because, as Václav Havel long ago pointed out in his masterful essay The Power of the Powerless, the prime function of the language of Party officialdom is to silence its opponents, to frame ways of seeing the world by excluding alternative narratives.

When seen in this way, the terms used by Chinese Communist Party-controlled media do in fact become part of the everyday language that Chinese citizens use to discuss and understand social and political issues. But whether or to what extent they believe the official language invented by party propagandists is not entirely relevant.

For the main aim of the propagandists is to remind the population who is in charge, to circulate through their daily lives a whole vocabulary through which they are supposed to make sense of the wider world, to smother them under a canopy of deadening silence, to force them to shut their mouths, and to keep their heads down.

Which helps to explain why the umbrella uprising in Hong Kong happened in the first place, why in recent days its supporters have built bamboo barricades, and why they are now desperately fending off police armed with guns and power tools, backed up by masked men working in tandem with taxi drivers and truckers convinced democracy is a dying Western ideal.

This commentary is published on the ABC’s The Drum and is part of a series of radio, television, text commentaries and foreign-language interviews on the Hong Kong umbrella uprising. The commentary is analysed in this short ABC News 24 interview (15th October 2014):

The Conversation
John Keane does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The NGO-ization of Resistance

IED collected by NGOs in Lainya county South S...
IED collected by NGOs in Lainya county South Sudan (2006-9) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Arundhati Roy, Massalijn:

A hazard facing mass movements is the NGO-ization of resistance. It will be easy to twist what I’m about to say into an indictment of all NGOs. That would be a falsehood.

In the murky waters of fake NGOs set up or to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges (in states like Bihar, they are given as dowry), of course, there are NGOs doing valuable work. But it’s important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context.

In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to neoliberalism.

At the time, the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy, transport and public health. As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas.

The difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending.

Most large-funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are, in turn, funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN and some multinational corporations.

Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose, political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place.

Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that.

NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way.

Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance.

NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.

In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.

Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation.

In order to make sure their funding is not jeopardized and that the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present their work in a shallow framework, more or less shorn of a political or historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient historical or political context.

Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese … in need of the white man’s help.

They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.

Eventually - on a smaller scale, but more insidiously - the capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries.

It begins to dictate the agenda. It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticizes resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self-reliant. NGOs have funds that can employ local people who might otherwise be activists in resistance movements, but now can feel they are doing some immediate, creative good (and earning a living while they’re at it).

Real political resistance offers no such short cuts. The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.

New eBook Details Seoul’s Sharing City Project

English: Seoul Plaza.
Seoul Plaza (Wikipedia)
Recently, Creative Commons Korea released an ebook detailing many of the Sharing City, Seoul projects, at both the community- and municipal-level, that form this new sharing mega-city.

As the Sharing City, Seoul ebook introduction notes, while Seoul is spearheading a sharing revolution, sharing is not new to its residents. Seoul is a city with a rich cultural heritage of sharing, including labor exchanges called “poomasi” and farmers’ coops called “dure.”

Today, with 10 million residents - the majority of them possessing smartphones - and a government committed to creating a sharing culture, Seoul is well-positioned to bring mass sharing to one of the densest cities in the world. Here are some of the initiatives highlighted in the ebook:

Creating Laws and Policies to Support Sharing

City officials are committed to bringing sharing, in many different forms, to the citizens of Seoul. To do so, they are revisiting restrictive laws and creating new sharing policies.

Incubating and Supporting Sharing Startups

Through schools, funding, mentorship programs and more, Seoul is developing a fertile ecosystem for sharing startup businesses and initiatives.

International Exchange

To learn from other sharing initiatives, as well as share what they’re learning, Seoul is taking a proactive role in connecting with other sharing leaders and cities.

ShareHub connects Seoul citizens with the city's many sharing services


An online portal to connect people with sharing services, ShareHub is a central tool for promoting and supporting Sharing City, Seoul.

Sharing Public Facilities

Parking lots, municipal buildings and more are open to the public for events and gatherings during off-hours as part of the Sharing City project.

Inter-generational RoomSharing

Pairing young people who need a room with elders who have room to spare and could use the company is a key aspect of Sharing City, Seoul, meeting both physical and social needs of citizens.


A platform that helps people organize and host events, ONOFFMIX is one of the young standouts of Seoul’s sharing landscape, with a vision to be the best event business platform in the world.


A house sharing platform, WOOZOO connects those with similar interests and hobbies as potential housemates.

Community bookshelves are an easy way to encourage sharing among neighbors

Book Sharing

Community bookshelves allow Seoul citizens to share their books with neighbors, creating social connections and providing an easy way to encourage a sharing culture.

Tool and Toy Libraries

Like the community bookshelves, tool and toy libraries provide a way for people to have access to resources rather than owning them. These libraries also serve as connecting hubs for people who sometimes share apartment buildings with 10,000 other people.

Good Neighbor Sharing Markets

Located in buildings that were left behind during the city’s demolition and redevelopment process, Good Neighbor Sharing Markets act as community hubs for sharing classes, DIY skillshares and more.

OpenCloset helps young people get outfitted with shared business attire


A clothing rental platform, OpenCloset outfits young people in affordable, business-ready attire.

Theatre Waste Recycle

What happens once a theatre is finished with its production sets? Through Theatre Waste Recycle, they can easily share them with other theatre groups.

Open Data & Media

Through Seoul’s Open Data Plaza and the Seoul Photo Bank, citizens can access data and media that can be used in various projects and initiatives.

Seoul eLabor Sharing

Using a complementary currency called “Mun,” people are able to share skills and labor with their neighbors.

Human Libraries

Through a platform called Wisdome, people known as “human libraries,” are able to share their knowledge and skills with those in need.

These initiatives and more are explored in the ebook Sharing City, Seoul.
Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

VIDEO: "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron

Nobel Rewards Economist Who Told Us How to Tame the Big Firms Which Run Our Lives

JeanTirole (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Akos Valentinyi, Cardiff University

Jean Tirole has won a deserved Nobel prize.

The French economist from Toulouse 1 Capitole University has made some significant contributions to almost all fields in economics, but it is his work in the field of industrial organisation that particularly stands out, and which drew admiring words from the the Nobel Committee:
Jean Tirole is one of the most influential economists of our time. He has made important theoretical research contributions in a number of areas, but most of all he has clarified how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms.
This field of research answers questions about how market power distorts market outcomes and hurts consumers. It also attempts to describe what governments can do about it.

Tirole’s work has helped enormously to understand how to design regulations in a world where corporations have market power and they know more about their own production process than the government does.

His works with various collaborators highlighted not only how good regulation should be designed, but also how badly designed regulations can impose more costs on society than it ideally would like to bear.

Power games

We can all see the new Nobel laureate’s relevance in the modern world by looking in some detail at just one of his innovations. The privatisation of utility companies in the 1980s and 1990s in many countries, both in Europe and elsewhere, was designed to bring entrepreneurship and private investment into this industry.

However, it was clear from the outset that this market would be dominated by a few large firms and that competition would not serve to limit the prices these firms charge to customers. It was clear that government intervention is needed to do this - and an obvious regulatory policy measure was at the time to cap the prices of these firms.

Playing it smart with the power firms Ian Britton, CC BY

However, the early work of Tirole with Jean-Jacques Laffont pointed out that this early regulatory measure is counter productive. Low prices ultimately require low costs, hence the regulator also wants to ensure that the utility companies reduce their costs.

Unfortunately, price caps induce utility companies which have less scope for cost reduction to reduce the quality of their service in order to lower their costs. Since the regulator does not know which firm has more scope for cost reduction and which has less, it cannot cap prices differently across firms.

Tirole and Laffont’s work implied that if the regulator offered two types of contract for utility companies - one with the usual price cap, and another one where the government shares the costs with the utility company, the former will be chosen by firms who can reduce costs more easily and the latter by firms who find it more difficult. Both then will have an incentive to reduce costs. This is less costly for society than the simple price-cap.

This early work opened up new avenues of research which recognised that a good regulatory regime should take into account how firms respond to a particular regulation - it is where game theory meets public policy and has influenced actual regulatory policy design over the past three decades.

Getting to the heart of the crisis

Our understanding of the global financial crisis has been shaped by his work. One of the most important questions for policy makers to answer has been how to make financial institutions more robust so that the huge social and economic costs may be avoided in the future.

Several contributions from Tirole over the years offer important insights into the problems which have surfaced in financial systems since 2007.

During the crisis, financial regulators were criticised for too-cosy relationships with banks. The work of Tirole and Laffont provided one of the first analyses of such “regulatory capture” in 1991. They showed how to design a regulatory framework that minimises the risk.

The crisis has also seen rating agencies fall under scrutiny for their role and, in his book with Matthias Dewatripont, Tirole warned against the exclusive use of private rating agencies back in 1994.

And when we look at the breakdown of financial marketplaces, particularly the interbank market and its severe impact during the crisis, we can turn to Tirole’s work with Jean Charles Rochet published in 1996.

That examined why systemic crisis is more likely to occur in a market where participants such as banks are strongly interconnected and made recommendations for what the regulator could do to minimise such a risk.

Rereading some of his research today helps to understand what happened during the financial crisis of 2007. If more regulators and policy makers had reread it before 2007, then things may have been quite different. This award goes some way to acknowledging that.
The Conversation

Akos Valentinyi does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 13 October 2014

C21st Left

English: Anti-imperialism sign
Anti-imperialism sign (Wikipedia)
by Barry York, Online Opinion:

I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens.

The main issue, as I recall, was 'capital punishment'. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966.

I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left.

Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa.

The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger - not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words.

Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.

I couldn't have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades.

1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics.

With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong.

Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became 'religious'. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the 'correct line' on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable - and bizarre.

The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left.

What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them.

Slogans such as "Not in my name" or "Hands of Syria" have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen "Smash Fascism!". An 'Anti-imperialism' that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.

What's Left can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory. To me, the key elements are:
  • Support for Progress. I use a capital 'P' in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature - Sustainability - have never been part of the left's lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the 'green' world.
  • Internationalism: 'they' are 'us'. Be 'they' oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or 'foreign workers' arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.
  • Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.
  • Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is 'the Left'. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my new blog 'C21st Left': "Beneath the paving stones, the beach!" It was either going to be that one or "Reach for the stars!"

Bolivia: Morales Wins Crushing Victory in Poll

by Stuart Munckton, Green Left Weekly:

"This win is a triumph for anti-imperialists and anti-colonialists," Bolivia's left-wing President Evo Morales told thousands of supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace on the evening of October 12 after a crushing win in that's day's presidential poll, Reuters said.

Morales won his third term as president, Reuters said, "trouncing his opponents on a promise to consolidate socialist reforms that have vastly extended the state's reach into the natural gas-powered economy".

Reuters said: "A Mori exit poll released by Unitel television showed Morales, a prominent member of the bloc of socialist and anti-U.S. leaders in Latin America, winning 61 percent of the vote. His closest rival, [cement tycoon] Samuel Doria Medina, had 24 percent."

Morales was first elected as Bolivia's first-ever indigenous head of state in 2005 on the back of huge anti-neoliberal protests that had overthrown two presidents.

He was elected on a platform to nationalise the nation's gas industry and initiate a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution based on incorporating Bolivia's long-oppressed indigenous majority.

As well as implementing these key promises, reforms to nationalise key industries and redistribute wealth have lowered poverty. Land reform has also benefited thousands of campesinos (poor farmers).

As well as economic growth averaging about 5% a year, Reuters said: "Under Morales, the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty has fallen to one in five from more than a third of the population of 10 million in 2006."

Polls indicate the Morales-led Movement Towards Socialist was likely extend its majority in Congress in Congressional elections held the same day.

See more background and gains under Morales in Ten reasons Evo Morales will be re-elected.

Nobel Peace Prize: Extraordinary Malala a Powerful Role Model

Youngest winner (Niall Carson/PA Archive)
by Nazima Rassool, University of Reading

The Nobel Peace Prize is a major achievement in itself.

For it to be awarded - jointly with the Indian anti-child slavery activist Kailash Satyarthi - to a teenager still at secondary school is extraordinary.

But then, Malala Yousafzai is no ordinary young woman.

Her advocacy for women’s educational and social rights in Pakistan have held to account those in charge of turning policy promises into real opportunities for young women.

She is known globally as the girl from Swat whose sustained campaign for the rights of girls to be educated, led to an assassination attempt on a school bus in October 2012. Malala, then 14, had incurred the wrath of the Taliban.

Born on 12 January 1997 in the town of Mingora, in the Swat Valley of Pakistan’s Northwest Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malala was politically educated by her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, a formative influence in her life.

Through his encouragement, her public campaign for the right of girls to be educated started in 2008, when she addressed the local press club in Peshawar asking the question: “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”

Online rallying cry

Malala started writing her blog for the BBC under a pseudonym, Gul Makai, when she was 11-years-old. This was a time when the Taliban dominated the Swat Valley and were destroying girls’ schools leading many girls to drop out. Some families left to educate their daughters in the larger cities of Pakistan or overseas.

Her blog gave a vivid account of what it was like living under siege and the uncertainty of being able to attend school. On January 14 2009, the day before the Taliban’s edict on closing girls’ schools came into effect, she wrote: “I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.”

Malala did return to school after the military’s partial success in driving back the Taliban but the family became internally displaced persons when Mingora was evacuated during the Second Battle of Swat.

On their return journey Malala made a special a plea to Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan to “help us in our education”.

As her blog identity became known and the diary available in English, young people across the world started engaging with the issue of girls and education online.

One wrote: “Malala has not only spoken up for people but even has given people the courage enough to speak up, (on) any platform”. She had become a positive, powerful role model and her engagement in media and other public forums enabled her to extend her campaign for girls’ education to wider audiences.

Since then she has won a host of other global awards and was also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

At the first Youth Takeover at the United Nations last year, on her 16th birthday, she addressed international youth educational advocates. She said: “I’m here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists”.

A charity fund has been established in her name to increase advocacy for girls’ education and to provide girls confidence to pursue their right to education.

Pakistan still lagging behind

Malala’s campaign has highlighted the need for countries to address the social, cultural and political factors that exclude girls from a basic human right - the right to be educated.

Pakistan, like many other countries, has become signatory to a number of international global charters, that enshrine equality of education, yet in 2009 girls in the Swat Valley were prohibited from attending school and their schools were demolished.

The Taliban shot Malala in 2012 for speaking up against this injustice - she needed to be silenced. There clearly is a major gap between policy and practice.

Despite recent education reforms, Pakistan continues to underachieve in education – it is ranked at 118 out of 129 countries in UNESCO’s Educational Development Index.

According to the 2012-13 Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey only 47% of women nationally have completed education at primary or higher level. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Malala’s home, it’s 29% of women.

Girls held back

Various factors contribute to the likelihood of girls continuing their education, especially in rural areas. Poverty plays a big part. In a conservative country, so does the need for an adequate supply of female teachers, the provision of separate toilet facilities for boys and girls in co-educational schools, school boundary walls at girls’ schools and travel distance to school.

But national investment in education remains low. According to the UNESCO- Islamabad Report 2010, despite Pakistan’s commitment to raise its educational budget to 4% of GDP, its educational spending has remained at 2% for the last 20 years.

Malala’s book I am Malala (co-written with Christina Lamb) documents the cultural norms that continue to infantilise women and girls by preventing them from living independent lives.

My own current research with colleagues into the professional lives of women educators in Punjab confirms the importance of family and cultural support to enable women to develop their own professional careers. Pakistan could only benefit from continued advocacy from people like Malala for women’s education and equal access to the labour market.

As joint winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is a powerful role model for girls growing up in Pakistan - and those living in countries where cultural, political and economic factors prevent them from living happy, secure and productive lives - to speak up and speak out against gender injustice.
The Conversation

Naz Rassool consults for Lahore College for Women University and the Government of Punjab Planning and Development Board. She receives funding from The Bell Foundation, the Government of Punjab Planning and Development Board and ESTYN.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Famous Riot Dog Dies

Loukanikos, the stray dog in attendance at every demonstration rally in Athens since the dawn of the Greek crisis, passed away on October 9.

Loukanikos, whose name means “sausage” in Greek, gained notoriety in 2010 when he began barking at police at the forefront of anti-austerity protest rallies.

The dog’s health was damaged by tear gas and repeated kicks from riot policemen, forcing him to “retire” from active protest in 2012, the year when anti-austerity demonstrations became less frequent.

In 2012, a caring Athenian family adopted Loukanikos, offering the dog love, food and vaccinations. “He was on the couch sleeping, when suddenly his heart stopped beating,” one of Loukanikos‘ owners told the Greek newspaper Avgi.

Latuff for Loukanikos

by When the Crisis Hit the Fan:

In 2010 Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff drew a cartoon about Loukanikos, the Greek riot dog whose fame was about to take off.
Last week it was made known that the cute street dog had passed away. The news flooded the Greek social media with sadness and even newspapers like The Guardian hosted a canine obituary. Carlos Latuff drew one more cartoon about Loukanikos.

Blessed are the Wastrels, for Their Surplus Could Save the Earth

"Join the Ranks-Fight Food Waste in the H...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Stuart Armstrong, University of Oxford

In a world where too many go to bed hungry, it comes as a shock to realise that more than half the world’s food production is left to rot, lost in transit, thrown out, or otherwise wasted.

This loss is a humanitarian disaster. It’s a moral tragedy. It’s a blight on the conscience of the world. It might ultimately be the salvation of the human species.

To understand why, consider that we live in a system that rewards efficiency. Just-in-time production, reduced inventories, providing the required service at just the right time with minimised wasted effort: those are the routes to profit (and hence survival) for today’s corporations.

This type of lean manufacturing aims to squeeze costs as much as possible, pruning anything extraneous from the process. That’s the ideal, anyway; and many companies are furiously chasing after this ideal.

Unfortunately there is often a trade-off between efficiency (producing the same goods at lowest cost) and resiliency (strength against unexpected crises). Protection against crises or disasters generally costs money.

You need to maintain reserves and build up unused inventories. You need to develop contingency plans and train workers. You need excessively robust or excessively flexible manufacturing capabilities. You need a branch of your bureaucracy devoted to worst-case scenarios, with all the salaries and time that goes with that.

And if you do all that - well, there are other companies out there, very willing to swoop in and take all your customers with their reduced costs. Resilient organisations go to the wall.

Bleak swans

Smaller, more regular disasters can be absorbed as a simple cost of doing business. But larger disasters, the large volcanic eruptions, the super-plague (natural or engineered), the one-in-a-hundred-year events … well, how many companies expect to be in business in a hundred years anyway?

Lava flows: Under-represented in corporate planning peterhartree, CC BY

Thus, the very efficiency that has driven human production to its dizzying peaks, creates a brittleness and a fragility to crises or disasters that are slightly too large. And the whole system is connected: when one part starts being overwhelmed, when one category of ultra-specialised manufacturers go under, others that rely on it will start to suffer too.

This could be followed by knock-on effects across the economy, hitting consumers and employees and spreading to other industries. A slightly-too-large disaster may bring down our interconnected economy just as effectively as a huge disaster would.

So it is important to preserve sources of resiliency where they exist. And the current waste in the world’s food system is such a source.

It’s a tragedy that rich Westerners and aspiring rich Westerners eat wasteful meat and that supermarkets and individuals throw away so much food (indeed half the food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away by consumers). But what that means is that there is a lot of slack in the system.

If disaster struck, we could go back to eating more vegetables and carefully preserving excess foodstuffs. Even if half the world’s food production was wiped out by a super-plague, we’d still have enough to feed most of the people we feed today.

There are other inefficiencies in the world economy that translate into resiliency for our species. Of course, not all that is inefficient is resilient - some waste is just waste (for food, we could do a lot about not throwing away imperfect vegetables, but little about insect damage).

What we are looking for is something that is wasteful, but could quickly be changed to be less wasteful if necessary. Perversely (and tragically), this could do more good for the human species that getting rid of all waste, which would improve the lives of more people, at the cost of making the whole system more brittle.

The saviour, or savour, of humanity? Simon Hildrew, CC BY

Good candidates for resilient inefficiencies are luxury goods. Spending on strict personal luxuries (jewelry, perfume, expensive cars, etc …) represents more than half a trillion dollars per year; but less blatantly excessive “luxuries” also abound.

Organic farms are an example: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers.

But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy).

This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

There are many other examples of inefficient resilience. Transport systems are another example: in many countries, there are multiple redundant ways of making the same trip, not all of them filled to maximum capacity.

Democracy also qualifies: the great efforts political parties spend denigrating each other can be swiftly replaced with common purpose in case of, to give an extreme example, external attack.

Government subsidies represent resources that could be redirected if really needed: the more wasteful they are, the easier this is. A standing army is an ultimate example: serving no efficient purpose at all, it yet makes the country much more resilient. In biology, the immune system and evolution itself are both robust and hideously inefficient.

Surplus requirements

It might seem perverse to promote inefficiency in the name of resiliency. And it is perverse. It would be much more effective to make production as efficient as possible, while some organisations - most likely governments - built up a surplus of goods and capabilities that could be used in case of disaster. But such carefully planned resiliency might not - if you will pardon the phrasing - be very resilient.

The accumulated surplus has no-one to speak for it, no constituency defending it, no faction profiting from it. In times of plenty, it would seem to be - and indeed it would be - an unprofitable waste, and furthermore a clear and visible waste, a waste that could be transformed into value at the stroke of a politician’s pen.

The same tension that exists between companies would exist between governments, each pressured to spend their surplus rather than accumulate it. On purely moral grounds, could anyone defend accumulating a surplus for a hypothetical future disaster while people starved today?

In contrast, resiliency through inefficiency is much more robust. It has natural constituencies: farm lobbies, healthy eaters, rich consumers looking for the latest novelty goods. It rests on traditional (or inefficient) ways of doing things, requiring no change or innovation. It does not require active policy interventions, or even acknowledgement of the issue.

As long as it is left alone, it will always be there, a reserve of resiliency ready to be tapped. As below, so above: the most inefficient way of producing resiliency is also the most … resilient.
The Conversation

Stuart Armstrong does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.