Category Archives: politics burblings

The four Cs- Coronavirus, Capitalism, Climate and Cats (“belling of”) 

Another hot take about what may be coming. The USP for this one is that 

  • It tries to use some academic theories but in plain English
  • It admits up front – “who the hell knows?”
  • It actually foregrounds the crucial question other posts (e.g. this otherwise interesting one)  ignore – “who is going to bell the bloody cat?” 

Look, you’re in lock down, and this will kill 15 minutes or so….

Introduction

In the following essay I try to do four things. Firstly, I want to suggest some intellectual tools which might be of use to you in thinking about what is going on/will go on. There are plenty of such tools knocking about (Marxist-or-other dialectics, policy theories, conspiracy theories, economics and other poking- around-in-the-chicken-entrails). This essay only focuses on two, and some of my favourites (1) don’t make the cut.

The two in use here are sociotechnical transitions (“Multi-Level Perspective” and deep transitions)  and neo-institutional theory (both the ‘pillars’ image and ‘institutional work’). I will try to keep this first section as pithy and vivid as possible, but, you know, these things come from academia, so there are limits on their digestibility. I’ll end that section with a shout out to some ideas I’ve encountered in the last few days which look tasty but which I haven’t had time to chew on.

Secondly, I want to use these tools to make some suggestions on the sorts of behaviours we will see as the pandemic continues/wanes. This section will draw on what others have been writing of late.

Thirdly, I want to suggest the cat belling question is equivalent to the “Van Halen demand no brown M&Ms backstage”  tactic(2).  That is to say, if an article – academic or popular – isn’t clear about who has to act, and how, then it’s probably a waste of your time.  And so in order not to be a waste of your time, I give my current answer to that question.

Finally, I want to flag just how much we don’t know, and things we should look at. This is the bit where I hope someone with access to ERC funds goes “give that man – who has signally failed to get more than one of the 6 jobs he has been interviewed for in the last year – a postdoc.  Money is no object.”

First, two disclaimers –

  1. Who the hell knows?  The ball we are staring into is less limpid crystal ball and more pitch black bowling ball. And while we are talking balls, the wrecking ball of Coronavirus puts paid to many firm facts that seemed so damn solid four weeks ago. (who knew there was a magic money tree, eh?) But which of these facts have melted into air, and which of them have moved aside/fallen over, only to get up again in the near future? Who the hell knows?
  2. If I seem glib, it’s because I am glib.  I, famously, don’t have skin in this game. If I had gone done the breeding thing, I’d be going out of my gourd about now. But the glibness, well, it’s a transparent (in every sense) defence against the night terrors, innit?

 

 

Part 1: “If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

We are all of us struggling to make sense of what is going on these last few weeks.  The most easy thing to do is keep track of death rates, of where we are compared to this country or that country (Italy seems to have become the baseline for Europe at least), and curse that we aren’t living in New Zealand, where they seem to mostly have their shit together (certainly their Prime Minister talks a much better game than her Australian/UK counterparts).  That gives us a temporary sense of control, because, you know, numbers make it scientific(3).

Next along, it becomes a morality play – of who ignored what warnings, who shut down what, who stripped what public sector organisation of which crucial resources.  This is all good grist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be held in (checks notes) …2022 or so.

The slightly more sophisticated version is to decry neoliberalism, and the casual stripping of the state’s capacity to act, flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down and selling it at firesale prices to rich mates who happen to be donating to your political party and/or providing you with a job once you’ve done your years in the trenches as a party hack or a bureaucrat. That’s a morality play with footnotes, with the added advantage that it takes you closer to the systemic nature of what has been done to collective provision.  And you can bop along to REM’s Ignoreland as you read Harvey, Mirkowski, Brown, or the “much raking” about Dark Money. If you’re nimble, you might even get a couple of publications out of it.

Still, morality plays with footnotes don’t help us orient ourselves. And right now, we could seriously do with some shared situational awareness.

So, what is to be done? What tools (that I am aware of) might help us see this more systemically, but still allow us to think in a granular level about the what is to be done (WITBD) question in ways that go beyond pleasantries, platitudes and shibboleths?

I’ve got two proposals, which are, to be fair, kinda linked. The first is socio-technical transitions (mostly “Multilevel Perspective” –  I am probably overcooking it and under-referencing ‘deep transitions’  ). The second is institutional theory – especially the work of Scott (three pillars) and the whole “institutional work” thing.

First, MLP/Deep Transitions.

The MLP was first propounded in the late 1990s in the context of ‘sociotechnical transitions’. These are long, slow changes from one relatively stable state to a new relatively stable state. Shortest way to explain transitions: if Doctor Who used his/her Tardis and went to 1400 and found a sailor and took them to 1800, the sailor would be impressed but not totally freaked out. They’d see that the basics were the same – trees were cut down, turned into planks into hulls. Then some masts. Sails were made. Ropes were made. People had jobs as sailors, provisioners etc.  Sure, some new kit (astrolabes, chronometers etc) but the basics were unchanged. If the good Doctor were to scoot them forward to 1900 and it’s all metal steamships and it would blow their 1400AD minds: “wtaf?”

So, in the intervening 100 years, “everything changed”.  And there had been a prolonged battle between sail and steam, with all sorts of folks jockeying to maintain the current system or switch to a new one, based on where their money was coming from, what they thought was ‘right’.

So, one durable/popular way to talk about sociotechnical systems and their staying power/inertia has been the multilevel perspective (MLP). What follows is exceptionally crude.

The MLP three levels – landscape, regime and niche. The landscape level – this is where there are long term “big” factors which no individual actor can really shift or control – so for the rise of the steamship it might be associated developments in transport (railways), communications (telegraph), business management (see Alfred Chandler), Western expansionism/colonisation etc.

The “regime” (or “system” – there’s a lot of debate about these terms, because, well,  academics) is where the “big beasts” are trying to keep things on, ah, an even keel (sorry). Big business, trade associations, government departments, regulators.  Anyone who is likely to get quoted in the first eight paragraphs of a Financial Times “state of the sector” special feature. And in the 19th century it would be the big shipbuilders, insurers, the British Navy, the American Navy etc.

Finally, you’ve got the “niches” where lots of experiments take place – people tinkering in their proverbial garden sheds, innovators and entrepreneurs who either want to bring a new product to market to get rich (or die trying), or who want to change the way the “regime” is made up and what it does.  There’s a whole industry around “strategic niche management” and who counts as a niche actor. Obviously regime actors are paying attention and will adopt innovations from the niches in order to gain position within the regime or else kill an innovation that would threaten their position (think of the Japanese state versus Western tech, up until 1853).

What happens is that eventually the technology (and behaviours which enable and are enabled by that technology become more ‘efficient’/obvious and a new regime is formed from the wreckage of the old.  Wars can speed this up (Johnstone and McLeish, 2020). Pandemics? Well, we shall see….

There are many many criticisms of the Multi-Level Perspective, many of them compelling , and all of them outside the scope of this particular article.  Recently, there’s been a repurposing of the MLP, or subsuming of it into the notion of “Deep Transitions (DT).” DT covers the idea that the kind of transition we need to cope with climate change – a massive, rapid decarbonisation of the interlocked systems which mean we can move about, feed ourselves and live in warm-enough houses – can/must be accelerated, and that we can learn some tricks to do that from looking at history.

The MLP and DT are useful tools, perhaps (but certainly not on their own).  Where coronavirus fits in is in the sense of “landscape shocks”. This pandemic, long predicted (Garrett, 1994) is, as the person who kindly phoned me the other week (4) put it, the mother of all “landscape shocks”, which destabilise and possibly delegitimise the regime. The regime relies on the consent (cognitive capture, if you want to go full Gramsci) of those participating. This last few weeks beats the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, 911 and so on as the ultimate “wtaf?” moment.  We are in the earliest days, and it already has unfathomable implications for many industries (newspapers, restaurant industry, insurance, you name it). With many “normal” things now stigmatised, what might emerge in its place?

As Johann Schott says

“The key question is whether the new practices, that generate positive impact, can be continued over the longer term when the shock disappears.  After all, ‘cancel everything’ can’t be a motto for the longer term, but perhaps cancelling the commute to work to attend just one face-to-face meeting that could be conducted online instead, may become the norm. ”

And – more importantly which of these new behaviours/norms might stick around and which will be gone like a fist when you open your palm?

Which brings me to the second useful intellectual tool: institutional theory.  There’s a basic confusion in English between organisations and institutions, with the latter term being used to describe the former.  But organisational theory is something else (and quite fun – especially if you get off on understanding just how horrifically unfit for purpose most outfits (in the Richard Stark sense) are: Pournelle’s Law, the Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, the Tyranny of Structurelessness etc etc).

Institutional theory is more about “institutions” in the sense that, in the words of Peter Cook that mawwiage, is an institution. So, the two ways I find particularly useful (again, see (1)) for thinking about “institutions” defined as

“ … social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

are (drumroll please) these.

  1. Scott’s Three Pillars and
  2. Institutional work (creative, maintenance, defensive, disruptive)

Scott (1995) suggests we think of institutions as held up by three pillars.

  • Cultural-Cognitive Pillar – “how the world works, according to my culture, what I should think of as proper and commonsensical
  • Normative Pillar – what seems “right” and proper
    (side-note: Bourdieu kind of went here with his ‘habitus’)
  • Regulatory – what are the rules (both legal and otherwise) of the game (yes, in The Wire sense).

The crucial point is that although these are “pillars” they can (and do) change over time. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1980s it was a ‘fact’ that homosexual men were perverts, and child abusers.  Well, common sense changed…

The pillars/norms around “the market” and “neoliberalism” were contested from their birth, but gained dominance in the early 1980s and endured until 2008.  Zombie-like, they have staggered on. In the coming months and years there will be an intense battle over not the existence of the magic money tree, but who gets to shake it and who gets to gather what falls from that tree…  There will be all sorts of battles…

This brings us to institutional work, first propounded by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006). It is

“the broad category of purposive action aimed at creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions and businesses .”

So, those pillars are being built, shored up, chipped away at all the time.  One of the most intriguing papers on this is about how DDT went from wonder-chemical to pariah in the space of ten years (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).  We will be seeing a hella lotta defensive and disruptive institutional work over the coming years, and also concerted efforts at creative institutional work – trying to create new norms and common senses around new behaviours.

Before I try to deploy the MLP and institutional work to ‘what next’, I want to shout out to two other tools which don’t make the cut but have the potential to be seriously interesting.

Firstly, within psychoanalysis – the Claustrum (Fife and Hines, 2020)

“When experiencing an environment which is intensely punitive, has little to provide, but upon which one’s survival depends, people develop predictable defenses—fantasies of how their environments work—and in various ways retreat into these fantasies, which filter their perceptions of the world and can provide a sense of safety. Or, if not safety, at least predictability—the truly new being far scarier than repeated contact with the evils one is familiar with. Psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer described the resulting subjective reality as the “claustrum.” These defensive fantasy-lenses are structured around three primary themes: 1) a dreamy apathetic denial of problems, 2) a compulsive need to convert everything into a bacchanalian party, and 3) a preoccupation with exposing and unmasking “falseness.” What draws one into the claustrum is the need to replace the confusion of reality with some kind of predictable, repeating experience that will reduce anxiety or at least provide a familiar cast of characters.”

Secondly, Peter Mair’s “hollow but hard” states.

Part 2: If I had a hammer

There are already a bunch of quite good “what comes next?” posts out there about how the pandemic ends  (Yong, 2020) and what might come next (Mair, 2020 ) and how climate change action ain’t gonna happen (Bordoff, 2020)

Fwiw, I should probably map the Mair one

“From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.”

onto David Holmgren’s peak oil/climate matrix at some point… But not today.

Pretty much everyone is alive to the danger of the status quo getting shored up. See Mazzucato (2020) and also Lombrana 2020-

“There’s a risk that countries and companies will  revert back to what they know works, Mountford says. Shovel-ready coal or fossil fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated”

Let’s take the two intellectual tools I banged on about in the first part of this essay – MLP and Institutional Theory – and see if there are any rough (5) thoughts we can sketch out.

MLP

Well, there has been a landscape shock.  So, the regime actors will be looking to either maintain the status quo OR ELSE push towards a new stable system they think they can dominate.

That is to say, there is not and will not be a single “they”.  Some current incumbents and incumbencies (we need to think of this processually. Get me another time on the whole “T-800 versus T-1000″ thing) will want to return to a recognisable version of the good old days. Others may think that they are more likely to be able to dominate a NEW system, and put their energies into creating that.

Maybe we should start thinking in terms of “status-quo-seeking incumbents” and “change-the-world-to-get-rich-from-the-change incumbents.”  It will depend on what assets they have, what absorptive capacity, what cognitive capacity and appetite for risk the decision makers have, how they can communicate that, how constrained/embedded they are in other relationships (can they get their shareholders/investors to take a punt?)

When it comes to mobility and energy, Elon Musk, presumably, will be in the latter category, as will electric scooter makers.  Car manufacturers with enormous sunk costs and interests in something that looks and sounds like an internal combustion engine maybe less able to be nimble, for a host of reasons (6).  This battle, clearly one that was coming, just got accelerated by a very small bug. So it goes.

In terms of consumer goods, new “zero infection risk” products will be promoted.  There will be an emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘ease of disinfecting.’ These will be advertised with a seal of approval from this or that official sounding body (some legit and desperate for cash or needing to burnish their own cred, others little more than front groups).

What will incumbents do in defence of their incumbent position? The glib answer – “whatever they think they can get away with”. The more interesting question is how they will go about doing it.

We are of course already seeing massive bailouts being garnered already (Tienhaara, 2020;  Dayen, 2020). Simultaneously, we are seeing a bonfire of ‘red’ and ‘green’ tape (environmental regulations.

ustoannounce

Matt Lubchansky

Niche actors

All sorts of niche actors will either believe in their own ‘technology’ as the rightful one (and there is, as you would expect, a tendency to moralism among the niche actors, many of whom are motivated by disgust and despair at the behaviour of the regime actors).  Others will be hoping for a quick buck, to form a marriage of convenience with existing incumbents. To the dismay of many, the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, on the morning of Wednesday 1st April, announced some kind of sleazy sponsorship deal with the Bilderberg Group.

However, before we get too bogged down in incumbents and niche actors, I would argue that the best way to think of this is through MLP and Deep Transitions PLUS institutional theory.    It’s a bit clunky, because this is a first pass. See section 4 for more about this…

Work which  incumbents/incumbency might do. Work which ‘niche’ actors, and “change the world to get rich from the change” incumbents  will do
Cultural cognitive pillar Maintain and defend by finding new partners to burnish selves (as per STRN). More tie-ins/sponsorships of charities/worthy causes

Highlighting the the work it did during the crisis (donations of stock/expertise)

Defend by delegitimising niche actors as unproven, dangerous, ‘dirty’.

Create new common sense by showing  customers that new products and behaviours are easy, clean, pro-social.
Disrupt existing incumbents by emphasising their bad behaviour, their need for taxpayer bailouts, labelling them dirty old dinosaurs.
Normative pillar Create and maintenance work by states and security apparatus attempting to (further) habituate consumers and citizens into a) handing over their data automatically as an act of civic-mindedness and b) delegitimise citizen questioning of states as ‘carping’ or ‘a resource drain during an emergency’ (already we’re seeing in the UK various public bodies delaying answering Freedom of Information Act requests) (7) and Agamben, (2020). Disrupt by delegitimising previously ‘normal’ technologies and behaviours (the improvements in air quality in cities will be latched onto by EV makers, as soon as it doesn’t look opportunistic. They will try to kill off the legitimacy of the Internal Combustion Engine.  Someone will go too early, others will learn, hold back. Then there will be a flood)

Legitimise “sharing,” but in ways that allow capital accumulation (they’ll try, but personally I don’t see AirBnB making a big comeback anytime soon).

Regulatory pillar Using the state to maintain the status quo, via using “safety” and “cleanliness” rhetoric to raise bar for new entrants  (especially likely in food production/retail) Try to disrupt by getting new rules attached to bailouts for “status quo seeking incumbents”

Try to get wiggle room in regulations and laws for ‘experiments’ (ideally with the tax payer picking up the tab/acting as insurer or last resort).

What will happen when the emergency “ends”?

If you asked me to bet, I’d say  we will see “corporate liberalism as Gabriel Kolko called it or The Thing as Cobbett called it ever further entrenched. Obviously I could be wrong, and I hope I am. (But hope is not a strategy – as we shall come back to.)

Some new practices will last only for the period of emergency, only to be undermined by wily incumbents, exploiting and amplifying the enormous and understandable desire to return to something like “normality”.  Presumably some new infrastructures (such as they are) and new social and moral norms will persist. Who knows which ones?

Part 3: Give me a long enough damn hammer and I will move the world, aka “who is gonna bell the bloody cat?”

In which I argue that if the worthy “our post-coronavirus world needs to look like this” article by the worthy person/people you are reading is not explicit and specific about WHO IS  GONNA MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it is not worth your time (8).

For those who don’t know the story

Conseil_Tenu_par_les_RatsA group of mice get together to discuss ‘what is to be done?’  A new cat has been gobbling them up at will. They debate various plans to nullify the threat of the marauding cat. Various stupid ideas are put forward (e.g. “ask the cat to be socially responsible”). Finally one of the mice proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are all warned of its approach.

The plan is applauded by the other mice, and the meeting is about to break up, ‘job done’.

Then one of the elderly mice raises his little mouse paw and asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat.

Tumbleweed….

All of the applauders make excuses about why it can’t be them…

 

Look, we bring our baggage with us, to new towns, new places. I may as well put my baggage on the table: I have (terminal?) ennui, a dread of (and inability not to go on?) making the same mistakes.  And I go to meetings – be they activist or academic where smart and/or brave people reel off shopping lists of Good Things that Should Happen.

But it isn’t real.  We’re deserting the real, most of the time, for understandable (and sometimes forgivable) reasons.  For me, the question is not “what needs to happen?” but – and sorry for shouting-  Who. Is Going. To. Make. It. Happen? What constellation of actors are we talking about – Activists locking themselves to things? Academics whispering in policymakers ears? CEOs driving change from above?

So, I agree with David Osland

“Coronavirus will likely see a transformation in popular political consciousness on a par with 9/11 and the financial crisis. If the left cannot harness that shift behind an egalitarian agenda, the right will use it to ram home its nationalist and authoritarian vision.”

I also agree with the skepticism of  Chris Shaw

“I wish I could believe that the millions of impoverished and the bourgeois will together use this crisis to waken to a new consciousness of the oneness of all existence and the suffering caused by grasping.”

With regards to “last chance to save the earth”, we have been here before.  I know I am a stuck record on this, but there have been three previous waves of concern about ‘the fate of the planet’ in relation to (gradual) environmental degradation – in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Earth Day), the late 1980s to early 1990s (Amazon, Ozone, Greenhouse, Rio), and then the late 2006s (Inconvenient Truth, IPCC 4AR, Copenhagen) one.

Now we are (or were?) in another, thanks to the obvious failure of Paris, Greta, XR, 1.5 degrees report, COP26.

But (and it is a big but)

Social movement organisations and “left populism” (I cannot speak highly enough of Fife and Hines, 2020, btw) are generally unable to sustain their anger, their energy. It’s too easily captured, corralled (see Barlow 2010 on this) and commodified. And on climate – well, we’re staring into the abyss here, folks, and the Nietzsche had some advice for niche actors who do that.

We sociotechnical transitions scholars know this.  We know how hard it is to create a sustained and sustainable market for ideas, technologies, how easy it is for incumbents to disrupt or purchase them.

And look, the COVID19 thing MIGHT be an enormous opportunity but

  1. If green groups go too early, they will look opportunistic and suffer a backlash.
  2. There will be an enormous amount of money spent on PR to burnish the status quo or funnel it to a new accumulation-friendly regime.
  3. Captured states (and all of them are) will pass all sorts of hellacious laws against dissent.
  4. There will be a desperation among grieving impoverished populations (so many businesses shut down, so much domestic violence – mostly by men, so much education interrupted, so much PTSD,  many hopes and dreams shattered) to ‘return to normal’.  Yes, even when that normal was in every available sense ‘unsustainable.’

So, what is needed is the following.

Citizens’ groups which are capable of

  • sustaining themselves, emotionally, financially, cognitively – avoiding the temptations of being co-opted, the dangers of being repressed, the lure of the smugosphere/and enacting or being enacted by emotacycles
  • Linking with other groups for mutual aid
  • Forcing the state (local, national) to be less horrifically a captive of the incumbents
  • Figuring out how to have sustained alliances with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like them
  • Figuring out how the incumbents will try to crack them (see above) and devising effective countermeasures

Here is something – CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done? – I mostly wrote, with input from my colleagues in Climate Emergency Manchester. It’s seven weeks old and feels like it is from another century. But it kinda stands up as a program. Kinda…

Oh, and there’s that climate change thing from a few years ago. (ONION)

I am not saying this is doable. I am not saying it isn’t doable. I am saying that if we allow the intellectuals who enjoy our attention, in meatspace and cyberspace to

  1. Keep it all in the realm of Shopping List Politics,
  2. Decline to answer the basic question “what have we been doing wrong in the past?”

then we are wasting the last of the last chances our species has for some sort of comfortable non-barbarism life on this planet. (8)

Section 4: Gizza postdoc

Here’s what – imho – needs studying, using MLP/Deep Transitions, Institutional Pillars/Work and whatever other intellectual tools I find down the side of the sofa…

  1. How will the incumbents in [insert sector here – transport, mobility, food, politics] use the COVID19 pandemic to reinforce their position?  What coalitions and constellations will they mobilise (industry bodies, relations with political parties). What discourses (around cleanliness, safety, reliability, care) will be mobilised. Under what circumstances are challengers (be they niche actors or incumbents from competing/overlapping systems) able to force system change?  In what ways will the state be a primary arena for struggle? How will civil society actors be tactically incorporated? What are the fracture and fissure points? (How) will the need to decarbonise economies and institutions be imbricated into these battles? Methods – Interviews with participants, keeping tabs on the industry associations and the revolting door – sorry, revolving door – with the state, and intra-state battles.
  2. How will existing NGOs and SMOs seeking to force a transition/transformation at the socio-technical/socio-material level actually stuff it up, (because they will).  What strategic alliances will they be unable, unwilling to create and maintain? What lacks – of operational capacity, of credibility and legitimacy- will doom them to ongoing irrelevance?  Methods – Participant observation, attending sage-on-the-stage meetings (aka “the meatspace equivalent of clicktivism”), going on marches, interviewing “strategic” leads of NGOs/SMOs.
  3. What scope is there for new actors (entrepreneurs morally, politically, economically) to repurpose existing discourses (safety, responsibility, justice) and forge (in every sense) alliances and constellations of actors which can accelerate (ah, that bloody word again) the delegitimisation of fossil fuel-centric incumbencies and give birth to some new rough beast, as we all slouch towards Armageddon?  Methods –  Participant observation, interviews, getting nicked, that sort of thing.

Have PhD, will travel. Not great at quantitative, but I do a mean interview. Reasonable general knowledge.

References (may not be complete, and may include some stuff that I didn’t reference. So it goes).

Agamben, G. 2020. Clarifications. Itself, 17 March.

Applebaum, A. 2020. The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff. The Atlantic.

Baker, P. 2020. ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?The Guardian, 31 March

Bordoff, J. 2020. Coronavirus pandemic shows why no global progress on climate change. Foreign Policy

Dayen, D. 2020. Unsanitized: Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The American Prospect,

Fife, B.  and Hines, T. 2020. I can’t relate. Damage, 9 March

Garrett, L. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

Ghosh, B. Bloomfield, G. and Schot, J. 2020. Conversations on COVID-19: Consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.  TIP Consortium, 27 March

Johnstone, P. and McLeish, C. 2020 The Role of War in Deep Transitions: Exploring Mechanisms, Imprints and Rules in Sociotechnical Systems. SPRU working paper.

Joshi, K. 2020. Watch out for this symptom of Coronavirus: lazy ecofascism. Ketan Joshi. Co. 20th March.

Lawrence, T. B.; Suddaby, R. (2006). “Institutions and Institutional work”. In Clegg, S; Hardy, C; Lawrence, T (eds.). Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage. pp. 215–254.

Lombrana, L. 2020. The Post-Virus Economic Recovery Could Be a Green One. Bloomberg

Maguire, S. and Hardy, C. 2009. Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 148-178

Mair, 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy. Verso

Mair, S. 2020. What will the world be like after coronavirus. Four possible futures. The Conversation

Mazzucato, M. 2020. Covid 19 Crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. The Guardian, 18th March.

Meadway, J.  The Anti-wartime economy. Tribune

Tienhaara, K. 2020. Coronavirus and the economy: we need green stimulus, not fossil fuel bailouts. The Conversation

Yong, E. 2020. How the Pandemic Will End. The Atlantic, March 25

 

What COVID-19 might also be threatening – “our” dream of absolute control….

You can look at the top of a fountain of water and think it is static. But it is only there because of a constant flow of water, versus gravity. (1) The perception is an illusion. In strange days like these, we can see this (whether it’s always full supermarket shelves, or ICU beds, or whatever)

Thanks to long supply chains, fancy logistics, we have lived these last 40-ish years with permanent global summer time (no seasons), the “always on” world where enough money buys you (the illusion of) total freedom. That – if you are IN IT – seems normal, just, permanent.

Of course, if you don’t have money, or get sick, or are involved in an accident, well, the illusion is damaged, sometimes beyond hope of recovery. Right now, there is a simultaneous breech in the illusion – this virus is punching holes in the walls of “reality.” That’s why I put scare quotes around “our” in the title. What do you mean ‘we’, white man?

If you always had money, and had no imagination, no perception of your own privilege, of just how unusual the PGST world, 24/7, JIT logistics was, then the psychic/cognitive shock is just overwhelming. So you deny “It’s just the flu”, or you try to regain control through so-called “panic buying” (2). You look for something that will help you to not see what is happening.

It’s not JUST a possible unravelling of “neoliberalism” (another loaded term) but of a dream of predictability

We” were told, from the 1950s on, that the future was gonna be so bright we’d have to wear shades. There was going to be MORE of everything, and everything was “under control”. A comforting story, that you’d be unusual not to want to believe.

It’s not just lungs which are under threat from COVID-19 (and for god’s sake, stay indoors if you can, wash your hands etc). It’s that myth of control, of predictability, that things can be managed. Some can, sure (yay antibiotics and checklists). But much cannot: more than we want to admit.

If/when we come out of “the other side” of this into some new “normal” the psychological and social desire to repress this moment, this lesson, will be huge.We will want to manage our terror by forgetting what we saw.

Those of us who think climate emergency is about more than carbon, that it is about our relations with other people, with other generations, with other species,  will need to keep that discomfort alive… /end

 

 

Footnotes

(1) this is a tidied up and footnoted version of a Twitter thread I wrote as a first draft of a coda for an academic article I am about to submit..

(2) “Panic buying” is a loaded term to cover many differently motivated bhvrs . If you don’t trust the assurances of politicians like Boris Johnson that everything is “under control” then it is surely “sensible” to “panic buy.”  There’s a lovely thought experiment in “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge about a brewery and its customers not being able to communicate effectively and causing unnecessary heartache for each other. Well, the  same dynamic plays out. And no, I did not go out “panic buying”  I am not trying to wrap up shitty behaviour in some sort of half-assed justification. Not that behaviour, anyhowsame

White Saviour Complex, COP26 and #climate activism – my two cents

I was sat recently in a room as white as Cumbria. It was full (80ish)  of white people who sincerely believe that the revolution will only come when the last capitalist is strangled with the intestines of the last racist.  There were three women of colour present. I was sat next to one, a friend, (who prefers the term black).  She is, as I said to her, one of my very few Black/poc friends (as in, I’m no better than any other white person on this matter).

And the meeting was about climate change. And the meeting was all culminating with… Fucking Glasgow.

But wait. This.  I’m a white guy.  And if I am gonna write about whiteness and climate change, I gotta flag some debts.  Beyond the debts to folks like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Bob Moses and others who’ve shaped my thinking long term, more recently, Mary Heglar has been just nailing it. To not read her is to court serious ignorance.  Follow this link, read this piece then come back.

“I find it nearly impossible to look at the climate crisis without seeing the consequences of all the times white folks told people of color: “Wait, we’ll get back to it later.” To be satisfied with “incremental change” and not “push too far.” To settle for band-aids atop gaping, festering wounds.”

Back? Right, well, go away again and read this piece too.  Then come back.

Where was I? Oh yeah, fucking fucking Glasgow.  There was even someone there, from Glasgow, telling us we should all be there in November for this fucking COP26, big fat emotacycle that it will be.

Imma call it now.  The obsession with “summit hopping” is just another manifestation of white privilege.  Not as blatant as chanting “we love the police” or sending flowers to Brixton Police Station, but another manifestation nonetheless. Harder to see because it would be horribly conflicting to see it.  Summit hopping is just another way for us white folks, with our unexamined privilege, to avoid the tricky work of local activism around local issues, of building coalitions with people who don’t talk like us, dress like us, speak like us and have the same/similar experience of the state (1).

Instead we can get to prepare for months for some big international jamboree, displaying our virtue, our knowledge, our concern.   Those who go will be the students, the retired and those who can take annual leave. Those with caring responsibilities, those on zero hour contracts, those who can’t afford to get nicked, will not go. And will feel second class for it, no matter what assurances are given that “we are all crew.” And for what? To achieve  what exactly?

And there is a zero-sum game here. Time we spend on that is time we don’t spend  on local issues.

And yes, as individuals these people will admit that they don’t expect Glasgow to be a magical solution. But the emotional and organisational imperatives are overwhelming. And the herd mentality is overwhelming. It’s not the Abilene Paradox, it’s the goddam Glasgow Paradox (except the reasons for it are not difficult to understand).

Where does the white saviour thing come in? Allow me to use my reconditioned IPhone6 (2) to share the scribblings I made and shared with my black friend.

First, the Glasgow shitshow and its demobilising potential…  (see also here)

IMG_0061

 

Now, White Saviour Complex.  Teju Cole kinda nailed that.

white saviour variation

and then, because I wanted to make my friend laugh (with/at me), and because it’s true-

virtue signalling

 

 

I suspect many people enraged by this post will have stopped reading by now. But for the record

  • I am not saying everyone who is “organising” for Glasgow is a racist.
  • I am not saying everyone who wants to go to Glasgow is a racist.

That would be absurd, and I am leaving the absurdity to those among us (and there are many) who think that the current system is in ANY way sustainable. It has been a horrorshow for most people of colour for a very long time. And a lot of white folks.  The horrorshowness of it all is expanding, is all  (oh, and don’t even start me on the other species we allegedly “share” this planet with).

For clarity, what I am saying is that there is more to unexamined privilege that we folks with most of the privilege can understand without a serious and painful effort.

What I am saying is we need to listen carefully to those among us  – black, white, indigo, green with polka dots – who are making an argument about white privilege that get our hackles up, that get us defensive. Because if the claims makesus angry, well, there’s quite possibly something to them, eh? And it then becomes a question of whether we retreat into the comfort of white tears, of being allowed to be angry (and who gets to be legitimate and non-hysterical in their anger is a whole other blog post).  Or if we try to manage our emotions and think with clarity about who we are, why we do what we do and what is not getting done that really really needs to get done because we’re too busy organising the next emotacycle.

FINALLY, those of you who know me, online or in meat space, know that I am hardly any bloody paragon of virtue. I am full of unexamined privilege (some would say full of other things). I have pissed off people I massively respect, and had my ass (quite rightly) kicked to the kerb, more than once, which is a source of ongoing regret (the pain caused to others, more than the exile).  But pointing out that I am a hypocrite (for the record – I AM A HYPOCRITE) does not invalidate the argument I’ve made.  Counter-arguments could well do that, but ad hominems are not counter-arguments..

Okay, FINALLY FINALLY. We have work to do.  Summit-hopping is going to at the very best be a massive distraction from that work. At worst it will kill the possibility of building that mass movement (less white than Cumbria please) that we all agree we need.  We white folks have the privilege of a choice. I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose right.

 

Footnotes

(1) This is NOT to say that all white people have the same privilege in relation to the state. If you’re working class, well, the truncheon will come down on you too. You The middle-classness of various environmental activists didn’t protect them from being abused by the SpyCops..

(2) Nonetheless originally mined by children, gorillas killed, put together by slaves prevented from killing themselves with those safety nets.

30 mins at a meeting’s outset tell you EVERYTHING. Also, crap plenaries…

There are other blog posts I need to write.

A review of an extraordinary book about Norfolk, the Stone Age, incumbency, patriarchy and sociotechnical transitions (no, seriously it’s all that and more. Staggeringly good))

Something about the intellectual work behind the job I just was interviewed for (accelerating sociotechnical transitions. Or sociomaterial transitions – or something in between)

Something about ‘you can’t blow up a social relationship’ – a bunch of novels I’ve read recently or a long time ago about ill-fated adventures in violent resistance (a 1970s genre of fiction, not all of it pulp)

But for now, I have Something To Get Off My Chest (as usual)

FOR FUCKS SAKE CAN WE PLEASE BE LESS FUCKING SHIT?? (okay, okay, I will tone this down now, given potential future and future potential bosses have checked out this site),.

So, sweet- natured version.

“Progressive social movement organisations may possibly benefit from some reflection on long-standing methods of organising and holding meetings”

So, here’s the ranty bit about the first 30 minutes of meetings

You can tell how a meeting, (and quite probably the campaign it is ‘part’ of will go) from the 15 minutes either side of the start.

If the answer to many of the following questions is “no”,  then time and energy are being spaffed against the wall.

Have people been given the option of wearing name badges and badges that say broadly where they are from, to help make it easier for other people to cross the first hurdle and speak to them?

Is there a notice up on the powerpoint saying “a big part of today is you getting to meet other people you don’t already know, to thicken the networks on which a movement sits.  Please do talk to strangers!”

Is it clear where the toilets are, the coffee/tea etc?

Opening speeches/announcements

  • Is there a clear “thank you for coming” and a repeated encouragement (perhaps even two minutes of doing it) to talk with someone you don’t know?
  • Has provision been made for people who would like to come but couldn’t (e.g. livestreaming of opening speeches, some sort of online interaction (a hashtag at least)
  • Is the opening introduction clear and concise and high energy?
  • Is the opening speech – if there is one – full of things that those attending DON’T already know/agree with?
  • Is there an opportunity for at least a couple of questions to the opening speaker, so the tone is set for, you know, discussion?  Is that opportunity after people have had a chance to talk with someone else to hone their question (if not, the usual suspects’ hands will go straight up)
  • Is it clear – crystal clear – what the purposes of the day are, from the opening introductions and the first speech?

So, here’s the ranty bit about plenary sessions. Also if the answer is no…

  • Has the reporting back from break out sessions been carefully designed (or, if you must “curated”), with clear time limits?   (Reporting back meaningfully from breakouts sessions is a skill. Most people do not possess that skill at all, or at the level required for it to be meaningful. In the absence of that skill, and of a time constraint, the report-backers will blather and foreground their own (organisational/emotional) needs. This will drain energy  from the room and credibility from the process, simultaneously.)
  • Have the announcements of upcoming events been carefully thought through, and a way of avoiding rants devised and implemented?  (If you really want concise comments, especially about upcoming events, have a ‘hand in details’ form, which can be entered on a powerpoint and flashed up for all to see.  Again, no time limit is going to mean some very long, rambling and energy-sapping and credibility destroying speechifying).

Oh, and sidebar – the emotacycle will get us all killed.

The answers to most of these questions, at most of the events I go to is “no”. Which is why I don’t stick around.  The number of months we have before the shit properly hits the fan is more finite than we want to admit – it’s later than you think.  So, why waste time at time-wasting and morale-destroying meetings.

What’s that you say?  I sound down on the “Left”?  Why, yes, yes I do, don’t I.

What’s that?  Am I a Daily Mail reader?  No, but I can see why you would need to believe that, since I am traipsing all over your tribe’s culture, and there is an implicit rebuke in this to you for tolerating crap culture in your subculture for so long.

Fwiw, I have raised these issues REPEATEDLY.  Both unhelpfully, but also as helpfully as I know how. You can, on a good day, get individual “organisers” to agree with bits and pieces.  But when time comes for them to innovate, to push past the resistance of their colleagues to any deviation from The Way Things Have Always Been Done, they bottle it. They lack either the skills or the spine – or both – to make things any different.  So it goes.

 

Why does nothing change, will nothing change?
Because the success or failure of one meeting doesn’t register for those who are making the decisions about it and future meetings, because those people are a tight-ish band of long-term/baked on activists, who will keep doing what they do. They lack the insight into what behaviours really put off newcomers, or have the insight but are unwilling to innovate the format of meetings because. well, lots of reasons.  Nobody else is going to be able to do a sustained change of format – the incumbents will have to do the disrupting, and everything we know about incumbents is that them doing disrupting is pretty damn rare.

So, we’re doomed. So it goes. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is, so suck it up.

 

 

Can we see right? With C. Wright, maybe…

I’m going through my unread gmail messages, tracking down notes to myself about the four empirical chapters of The Thesis  (which is all but done).  And I’m stumbling on stuff that I always intended to blog/think more about.  Here’s one (should probably turn into a video!)

“The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have experienced; and their own experience is always indirect. The quality of their lives is determined by meanings they have received from others. Everyone lives in a world of such meaning. No man stands alone directly confronting a world of solid fact. No such world is available. The closest men come to it is when they are infants or when they become insane: then, in a terrifying scene of meaningless events and senseless confusion, they are often seized with the panic of near-total insecurity. But in their everyday life they do not experience a world of solid fact; their experience itself is selected by stereotyped meaning and shaped by ready-made interpretation. their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet. Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.

“The consciousness of men does not determine their material existence; nor does their material existence determine their consciousness. Between consciousness and existence stand meanings and designs and communications which other men have passed on – first, in human speech itself, and later, by the management of symbols. These received and manipulated interpretation decisively influence such consciousness as men have of their existence. They provide the clues to what men see, to how they respond to it, to how they feel about it, and to how they respond to these feelings. Symbols focus experience; meanings organize knowledge, guiding the surface perceptions of an instant no less than the aspiration of a lifetime. Every man, to be sure, observes nature, social events, and his own self; but he does not, he has never, observed most of what he takes to be fact, about nature, society, or self.

“Every man interprets what he observes – as well as much that the has not observed: but his terms of interpretation are not his own; he has not personally formulated or even tested them. Every man talks about observations to others: but the terms of his reports are much more likely than not the phrases and images of other people which he has taken over as his own. For most of what he calls solid fact, sound interpretation, suitable presentation, every man is increasingly dependent upon the observation posts, the interpretation centers, the presentation depots, which in contemporary society are established by means of what I am going to call the cultural apparatus.”

C. Wright Mills, “The Cultural Apparatus,” in Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, p. 405-406

Open letter to Jay Weatherill on #fuckwitgate

Dear Jay,

we are both busy (you with trying to implement climate and energy policy while the Federal Government supplies only ridicule and chaos, me with finishing a thesis) so I will keep this as brief as I can.

When I read what was reported in today’s Australian (1)  ‘Jay says nay on right-wing remark‘  I was both confused and exasperated.  I do not understand why you would wait a week before claiming “I think I might have been misheard. I think I said…” 

I note there are lots of qualifiers there (and no outright denial) and it’s followed by a claim about background noise.  On that, I would point out that you don’t flag any problem with my hearing everything else you said – all those quotes which reflect (well) on your actions since the September 2016 blackout..

I wonder if you worry, that this Clayton’s denial – the denial you have when you’re not having a denial –  just feeds into the public narrative that politicians will try to wriggle out of things they said and that they later wish they hadn’t?

Clearly my prediction that this was going to be a ‘one-day wonder’  was misplaced. Oh well.  I have no interest in continuing this non-controversy, because in the absence of a sound recording, everyone can just say ‘no evidence’ and it goes all Rashomon.  The following  questions seem obvious though-

  • Why did you not claim that you had been ‘misheard’ at the time?  Why is that, as Giles Parkinson pointed out in the Australian article today,  neither you nor your office sought a retraction, correction or apology?
  • Why did you call the remarks ‘lighthearted’ if they were simply indeed ‘rightwing  sceptic’?  That’s not particularly light-hearted, simply banal.  By referring to your comments as light-hearted the day after, surely you were tacitly admitting what you had said?
  • Why did the  entire room burst into laughter and applause if all you did was describe Kenny as a right-wing sceptic?
  • Why did you offer a mock apology ‘oh sorry’ at that time?
  • Why did none of the other 100 people present at the book launch – fans of you and Mark Butler- come forward to challenge my account?  (Of course, some may now do so, now that you have signalled that this is something you want to bury)
  • Why did you call the event – and continue to call it – a private function? It was a book launch, or heaven’s sake!  If you can’t get that right, why should anyone believe what you “think” you said?

Am I surprised by your behaviour? A little. But I  am more disappointed – I thought you had more guts.  But perhaps you have to save those guts for challenging the Federal government’s egregious inaction on climate and energy, and water. If that’s the case, well, then, so be it, and good luck.
Marc Hudson

Footnotes

(1) Of course, the Australian has a very long (27 year) history of reporting climate stories badly. Examples available on request. On the book launch beat up they managed not to credit their source and then mis-identify the location of the book launch (it was at the Publishers Hotel, not the University of Adelaide.  Then, on Friday of last week its stablemate the Advertiser managed to get the day of the launch wrong.  So maybe you were ‘misquoted’ (oh the irony) or were speaking with your tongue in your cheek?

Thoughts on ‘what next’? #2ndGE2017

Interested in any good articles people have read on what happens in the next six months. My thinking, fwiw is this –

May cannot expect to cling on for more than a few months. The DUP deal is inherently unstable, and there are any number of domestic landmines.

The thing that is saving her at the minute (and by the time I finish typing this post things may have changed) is that there is no clear alternative who can fight an election campaign (the conventional wisdom – for what that is worth – expects one in October). Boris Johnson wants the gig, but his negatives are very very high. Amber Rudd is in a real marginal constituency now. Fallon, Hammond etc – give me a break. Ruth Davidson is an MSP, not an MP, so would have to be parachuted into a safe seat – not an easy thing to do on the sly.

Labour now look like “winners” – apparently lots of people have been googling ‘join Labour’. Problems for them are

a) risk of cult of personality

b) boring people with boring meetings

c) sustaining momentum (no pun intended).

d) Its EU/Brexit position – hmmm – will it be able to finesse the issue? Will we see a rise of the remainers?

Mainstream media seems a bit stuffed in terms of its ability to influence voters (young people just do not buy newspapers).

As Craig Murray writes

I suspect that what happened is that the mainstream media realised it is losing influence, and tried to compensate by becoming so shrill and biased it simply lost all respect. This election may be the one where social media finally routed the press barons. They may in turn start to wonder if it is worth sinking millions into a newspaper if it can’t buy an election

So, the government loses its majority thanks to dead/retiring MPs, no way ending austerity because nobody would believe them, no way of continuing it because of unwhippable marginal MPs (Zac Goldsmith).  Heathrow decision still not made, Brexit negotiations going horribly.

Big business will be furious. I mean, beyond furious.

A general election in October-November, by which time May will have been replaced (everybody knows she cannot campaign her way across a wheatfield).

Labour, with extra resources, targets lots of the marginals, wins more seats, ends up with say 300, taken from Tories and SNP. Forms government?

Am I dreaming? What am I missing??