Cold Toes in Stockwell, Old Knees at St. Paul’s.
It was about 30 years ago in this wonderful yet always perplexing city that a small group of concerned citizens met over coffee in a small flat in Stockwell to discuss the upcoming economic summit.
Yet it was not a meeting of international Chancellors and bankers that concerned us but a fledgling organisation called TOES; The Other Economic Summit. Like today’s Occupation Movement, TOES sought to challenge the status quo; we were motivated by seeking antidotes to a global economic system that was not delivering subsistence, never mind prosperity, to a very large proportion of the world’s population. My part in that small gathering was very minor, Anthea Nakorn and I took a couple of boxes of print home to our £20-a-week flat in Gipsy Hill (in the days before mass ‘gentrification’ it was one of the cheapest areas in S. London) and, in a few hours, stuffed and licked what seemed liked thousands of envelopes but was probably only a few hundred.
With mouths tasting of glue probably derived from some cheap-labour animal rendering plant somewhere in what we then called the ‘Third World,’ we thought we had contributed something to alternative economics and perhaps we had. The writers of those pamphlets and the organisers of TOES, David Kemball-Cook and Paul Ekins, both later instrumental in setting up the New Economics Foundation (nef), would always say “…it all comes down to economics!” whenever well-intentioned Greens insisted that all we needed to do was hug a tree and chant ‘om’. And today, as then, it is still a battle to explain how economics and the power behind the control of money are at the crux of pretty much all human activities.
The London Occupation and the occupation movement in general are perhaps more overtly concerned with economics than the previous libertarian/left/green/agitprop movement ever was. Partly because the disparities between the rich and the poor of the world are more greatly publicised than ever and partly because the fluctuations of boom and bust that were expected to precede the inevitable collapse of the unsustainable money supply have, by and large, happened as predicted. The population as a whole, however, is still not much interested in economics even though the outcries over bankers’ bonuses and M.P.’s expenses do express a general disgust that the powerful among us shamelessly line their pockets while millions starve to death elsewhere.
Another similarity that strikes me, between then and now, is the admixture of religion, morality and academia. David Kemball-Cook became a theologian, I became an environmental campaigner (I always was an atheist so no change there) while Paul Ekins became a most eminent Professor of economics. It is not surprising that those concerns should become intertwined but it is the intertwining of them that has, in part, led to the impenetrable nature of the field of economics as a whole.
Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith, usually quoted in disagreement, had a great deal in common; they agreed that the basis of value was the energy devoted to labour and capital and they agreed that the control of the means of production was key to the control of prosperity. They also agreed that welfare is paid for out of surplus. Their disagreements were to do with how power structures were maintained and how everyone (even the ‘backward’ races – yes racism was ever-present) might be fed and watered in a more or less dignified manner. And because they saw the world as a vast and inexhaustible store of materials that would, to all intents and purposes, last forever, their schemas were significantly more popular than they had any right to be; neither foresaw the limiting hand of exponential growth or the reaching of Malthusian limits.
But the modern environmental movement, rightly aware that simple mathematics dictates that limits to growth are inevitable, has yet to convince the wider electorate that the economic growth paradigm has now taken us to what Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, (professor, Department of Physics at the University of Boulder, Colorado in the United States) calls ‘one minute to midnight’: the time before the last doubling of the global economy exhausts available resources and markets. Bartlettpoints out that before the last doubling of any system it is, effectively, seen as being at half capacity.
The concepts of doubling time, exponential growth, compound interest and reaching limits of expansion are key to all conversations about everything; food, population, pollution, resources, war, famine, industry, power, money and therefore economics. And yet there are many highly paid people who should, and do, know better telling us that there are no practical limits to any activity. The other day, at a meeting inPlymouth, I met a writer called Daniel Ben-Ami whose book, ‘Ferraris for All’ purports to show how continued and unlimited economic growth is both feasible and desirable; his publishers blurb says “A defence of economic progress is a rejoinder to the growth sceptics.” All I can say is when did being able to add up make me a sceptic? It is, as if by magic, all simple mathematics has become foolish. Oh those silly numerate people! When will they realize that finite resources are infinite? When will they come to their senses and agree with the greedy bankers that all resources have been invented by the clever people in power and that there can be no limits to our prosperity?
That an idea as astoundingly stupid as ‘Ferraris for All’ could be treated seriously is of course to do with the power structure that supports it rather than any intrinsic merit displayed by the fundamental premise. But I really wanted Daniel to be correct; I don’t want to have to worry about limits, poverty, inequality, suffering and death – all subject to thermodynamics, though Daniel denies it – when I could be thinking about becoming rich. And there’s the rub: the prospect of escaping the grim reaper that is the Law of Entropy is so beguiling to so many that consumerism has based an entire global culture on it. Only religion, that other great mystical tradition, comes close to such foolish hegemonic domination.
The irrational and mystical nature of consumerism, that New-Agers as well as advertisers use to fleece both the impressionable and the innumerate, is in no small way responsible for the acceptance of the unsustainable economic model currently leading society to the brink of collapse. For regardless of our morality, our ethics, our desires and our needs the simple mathematical truth that nothing lasts forever should be the defining principle around which the organisation of any human behavior is based. It is my contention that none of the rich and powerful actually believe that there are no limits to growth; it is simply in their interests to spin the lie for as long as possible so that, when the inevitable economic collapse happens, it is they who hold the guns, the power and, crucially, the land.
The Occupation Movement understands the value of land; who controls it and why it is significant. Many pamphlets and websites have been devoted to the symbolic nature of occupation; of taking the land back into the commons – even if only briefly before the Riot Police arrive – as a message of both defiance and simple pragmatism. Activists such as Robin Smith, camped out permanently atSt. Paul’s, have suggested (through organizations such as Real Reform) that land ownership might usefully be the basis of all taxation. The New Economics Foundation too are aware of how valuing and pricing our natural resources tends to change the ways in which populations relate to their means of subsistence; and we’re not just talking about the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ or ‘under-developed’ world; this effects us all. The devil is, of course, in the detail but we should not let detail differences get in the way of standing together to promote an economic system based on fact rather than mystic fiction.
So it was with both excitement and nostalgia that I chatted with Occupiers and visitors and, with Jo Jones, posted my leaflets on the columns. The issues have not changed but the urgency of the problem has increased enormously. Towards the middle of the afternoon I looked in at the ‘Tent City University’ where a young nef researcher was finishing a talk on resource pricing. It occurred to me that he might not have been born when I first started campaigning and I sincerely hope that his generation has more success than ours. Later I had to leave a workshop on public speaking due to my aching knees – my apologies to Ms. Zenith.
But no amount of demonstrating will shift power from where it now lies to an active and ethical citizenry without the citizenry signing up to limiting individual wealth and power to levels well below those enjoyed by our multi-millionaire Ministerial Cabinet. If we want our future captains of industry, our politicians, our union leaders and the rest of the power-elite to take our stance seriously and if we want our bankers to be other than selfish opportunists we have to put our own money (or lack of it) where our mouths are. The Sirisuk Declaration is a mechanism for saying publicly that we want the next generation of politicians and active citizens to increase their ethical horizons by limiting their material ambitions. We might never be in the position to have to choose between public service and great wealth but we should all sign up to the principle of putting the former before the latter. If we can’t do that then we have no legitimate right to complain, let alone occupy.
Nick Nakorn, 19th November 2011,London.