“How can we avoid heading over an economic and ecological cliff?”



Richard Swift is the author of SOS Alternatives to Capitalism. He spoke to Spectrezine editor Steve McGiffen about his book, the second edition of which has just been published by New Internationalist.


SM       I kept wondering as I read your book what difference the election of Trump – and of course the elevation of the fascist Bannon to such an influential position – has made, if any, to your analysis. For example, you say on the last page that we have decades, not centuries, but if Bannon-Trump get their way and start a war with China, or provoke China into starting a war, we may not even have months. So what if anything would you add or change if you were to write a third edition now?

RS        I would probably add that this increases and underlines the urgency of what I argue in the book we need to do. Trump himself is such an odd and unpredictable piece of work it’s hard to predict what he will do, but the constellation of people around him, people like Steve Bannon, hard right, alt. right, white nationalist characters, these are very scary guys. And of course in his erratic behaviour Trump himself is pretty scary. He could go off in any direction and as I said, this underlines the urgency of my book’s message.

SM       On the other hand, I have found the global response very encouraging. Could you comment on this?

RS        It’s been moving to see. There’s a huge amount of resistance, and so that’s also part of what steps up the urgency. It’s further indication that the centre cannot hold. The political centre in post-industrial societies is not delivering the goods, so the populist revolt is becoming the norm. The obvious danger comes from the populism of the right, but there’s also a populism of the left. You can see that with the Sanders campaign in the US and in southern Europe with the resistance to austerity.

SM       I note that you acknowledge the Sanders campaign in your book and that it likely won’t succeed – this was clearly written before Clinton secured the nomination - but that even if he did get elected President of the United States “he would likely have disappointed…most of his followers, because he would have been a prisoner of US imperial power.” But then you temper this in a way with which I completely agree, pointing out that “millions of mostly young Americans  have proved to be willing  to consider a ‘future that works’ that is, at its core, an alternative to capitalism.” I agree, this is clearly a step in the right direction.

RS        We’ve been having to deal with a very narrow frame of politics, with tinkering from centre-right and centre-left, but people just don’t believe in that any more. It’s a threat, but also brings hope. The problem is sustaining the resistance. We saw a similar response after Bush’s war in 2003, all over the world we had the biggest demonstrations in history, but where did everyone go after the demo dispersed? The day to day slogging, organizing, that’s the hard part. Particularly in the US but elsewhere too, we need to  begin to pose an alternative that’s not just going back to something. You’re also starting to see the most articulate voices for the centre starting to worry. The Economist, for instance, is constantly going on about populism, whether its Bolivarian populism in Latin America or Fascist populism in France.  It’s become a kind of buzzword.

SM       Isn’t populism now one of those words that they throw around without ever defining it?

RS        It’s usually attached to ‘spendthrift’. They don’t like it.

SM       You say early in your book that capitalism is “addicted to the climate-destroying economy”. When I worked for the United Left in the European Parliament, Greens used to argue that capitalism could be capable of effecting the kind of transition that occurred when the most advanced countries switched from muscle, water and wind as sources of energy to steam and then to electricity and the internal combustion engine. Since Paris there have been a few stirrings in that direction, though at the moment they are no more than commitments. I don’t agree with the greens on this, but I find it hard to theorise why it isn’t going to happen. What is your view? Was Paris just for show?  Can capitalism discover that climate change  could be way of making money? Paris was awful, yet there has been a shift in the mainstream in recent years.  Could capitalism green itself?

RS        My every instinct is to say no. Yes, there are people high up in the system who realise that this is a real threat and they are actually trying, inadequately, to do something about it. The problem is that they run up against so many other forces, against so much of the impetus of the system. In Canada we had until recently a Conservative government of what were basically climate change deniers. After eight or nine dreary years we shifted and brought in a Liberal government. And that Liberal government made a big deal about taking our place on the international stage in a responsible fashion, so in Paris we behaved in a pretty reasonable way. But since then the government has gone back on commitments. It’s consented to the building of four pipelines to pipe tar sands oil into foreign markets. Just the inherent dynamism of the system undermines the good intentions of so many of these efforts. If there was a sort of Central Committee which ran capitalism it could perhaps be done, but of course there isn’t and what you do have are too many contending players for profitability. Moreover, it’s not just climate change. There’s a whole series of ecological crises: resource depletion affects both renewable and non-renewable resources; there is a crisis of industrial agriculture and what it’s doing to the long term fertility of the soil. Climate change is a big part of the ecological crisis, but it is only a part.

SM       In the section of your book entitled “Losing our diversity”, you talk about the imposition of uniform systems for dealing with problems, systems which always tend to favour the side of corporate capital. This is part of what Stephen Gill calls  “New Constitutionalism”, comparing it to the way in which national constitutions limit the scope of statute law and actual practice. Friedrich Hayek also talked about this, but unlike Gill he thought it an excellent idea. Do you agree with Gill that analysing external restraints on states’ ability to make law as sovereign entities are supposed to be able to do – restraints emanating from the EU, NAFTA, the WTO, from trade and investments treaties, from a range of financial institutions - is a useful way of approaching such issues as the destruction of social democracy as a progressive force, the undermining of protective labour and environmental law, and the erosion of popular democracy?

RS        Well, yes, but we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. The IMF, the WTO and the EU, though the EU is more complicated. The EU has done some good things in the environmental field. But these institutions are impediments to popular sovereignty. The investor state dispute clauses in trade treaties like the CETA are typical . On the other hand structures in opposition to these are looking to protect national security state, and they don’t seem to me to represent a huge advance in the pursuit of socialism or meaningful popular democracy. We need a mixture of what I call globalisation from below with recreating democracy in our own societies, embedding power of democracy in society.  

SM       The main difference for me is simply that the EU has more power. Yes, I accept it’s done some good things, though its record in no field, including the environment, is better than patchy. It’s not that we don’t want international cooperation. What we don’t want is dictatorship from unelected institutions in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Maastricht made neoliberalism the basic philosophy of the EU. It remains a terrain of struggle but one in which we have suffered a succession of defeats.

RS        I accept that. European statutes have stopped some polluting activities but the EU also created the situation in which not just the Greeks, but in Spain and Italy, people have had an austerity regime inflicted on them which they are trying to overthrow. There’s clearly a fear of the good example.

SM       Brexit was presented as a far right thing, compared to Trumpism, yet a third of Labour voters voted Leave. Larry Elliot, economics editor of the Guardian was a Brexiter, there was a left Leave campaign which brought together numerous organisations and was absolutely ignored by the corporate media. And of course Spectrezine supported a Leave vote.

            Moving on, I was very interested in your book’s discussion of the nature of primitive accumulation, which Marx discussed mainly in relation to the transformation of pre-capitalist economic formations into capitalism. This form of primitive accumulation was a process by which people were violently divorced from their traditional means of self-sufficiency. Marx’s idea has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, as it’s increasingly clear that the process is at the centre of globalisation. Yet the expropriation of usable land and other resources has surely reached such a level that there is in effect very little left to plunder. They have also burrowed deep into the ‘markets’ offered by developed and developing countries alike. The desperation to sell is tangible, and in order to sell, corporate capital has colonised whole areas of society: global competitive sport, for example; or take the fact that there are quite a lot of children around who think Walt Disney wrote just about every children’s story there is. I have referred to this as “the colonisation of our children’s imagination”. Corporate capital is constantly searching for new things to colonise, new fields to enclose. It’s getting harder for them, and this has always led in the past to war. Do you share my fear that we are living, so to speak, in 1913?

RS        This is closely connected to some major themes in my book, including growth and what it really means. It also refers us back to the question of the death of diversity. Instead of external expropriation, we have internal expropriation - though of course the external still exists - in the expropriation of the commons. What we’re seeing when we look at the kind of ‘colonisation’ to which you refer is the intensive exploitation of the human mind by means of turning us more and more into consumers of fantasies.  Montreal where I live was once an industrial city, but most of that industry has left,  gone offshore. Even the banking and financial institution which used to be a major part of the city’s economy have largely moved on. One of our biggest industries now is the manufacture of computer games, often violent computer games.

            Going back to the question of whether we are in a pre-war situation, we left World War Two with high growth rates which continued to an extent up to the 1970s. Now in developed countries, if growth rates reach 1% it’s a matter for celebration. It’s possible that a war with China would be seen as a way to address a lot of problems.  There are definite policies which could come out of the current situation. Some are good, some aren’t, some could mean war. Creative destruction takes an extreme form in war. Creative destruction  is useful for the survival of the system but real things get destroyed and of course its us and our stuff that get destroyed. Creative destruction is simply destruction to most people.

SM       The return on capital is poor, and war is a possible response.

RS        Except in the financial sector. Financial capital creates an artificial economy.

SM       But 2008 showed where that could lead.

RS        But it also showed that the industry has the influence on policy to deal with it. There’s more wealth now in this artificial economy than there is in the ‘real’ economy. 

SM       Turning now to another policy issue, but one which very much concerns the financial sector which we’ve just been discussing, many social democrats – the best of them, or the most progressive – are arguing that all the world’s economic problems could be solved in one fell swoop if we could eliminate tax evasion and tax avoidance, closing down tax havens and closing the huge loopholes which characterise tax systems in general. My own response to this is along the lines of “great idea, and if I could grow wings I could save on air fare.” A bit like socialism itself, it’s a “how do we get from here to there?” question. Do you see any possibility of pursuing this and ensuring that the resulting freed up resources are used to address problems of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, to take a few examples?

RS        This is an important terrain of struggle, on which I have done some research. In The Hidden Wealth of Nations, which is subtitled ‘The Scourge of Tax Havens’, Gabriel Zucman makes a practical case for how you could eliminate tax dodging by computerising wealth flows. Wealthy individuals and corporations could be entered into a world financial registry backed by well-defined sanctions. The countries which provide tax havens aren’t powerful in themselves for the most part – think of the Cayman Islands - so it’s a question of political will. It’s part of what puts governments into an austerity lock. And if you can attack the tax avoidance system you have a chance of gaining widespread support and of winning. It’s a better ground on which to fight.

SM       Not all tax havens are obscure or weak. The Netherlands deliberately creates loopholes  and successive governments have argued in the face of opposition criticism that this attracts business –

RS        Canada is part of this too. And Swiss banks remain at the centre, pumping money through to the British Virgin Islands, the Caymans, Bermuda and so on. Although

there is widespread disapproval of tax evasion, there’s another popular reaction, which is to ask, ‘if the rich don’t pay their taxes, why should I?’ We need to convince people that taxes are the gift we give each other, that we live in coherent societies because of taxes. Rich people forget  that even if they live in gated communities,  public health problems will still affect them, still bounce back on them.

SM        Moving on once more, I’d like to pick up some of your remarks about social      democracy. I generally agree with your analysis. However, two points: you see the welfare state as having been principally a device to preserve capitalism, which looked at in one way it was, but it’s hard to see the advanced welfare states which prevailed in the Nordic countries for half a century after the war simply in those terms. Welfare states everywhere, but writ large in the UK, have been evolved into disciplinary mechanisms designed to simultaneously preserve and punish a reserve army of labour, but that was surely not their original intent. I’m not by any means a social democrat, but I do think the Nordic-style welfare state is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and shouldn’t be written off. Do you accept that?

RS        The welfare state is in a sense one of our highest achievements, but while it was brought in to save capitalism, this was less a top-down response than it was a reaction to mounting pressure from below. As this pressure has lessened the welfare state has morphed into a social control mechanism. David Graeber talks about how the left has lost its criticism of bureaucracy and allowed the right to take that ground – “the state is bureaucratic, the private sector is more efficient”. We need to build a welfare state which is responsive to its citizens.

SM         But neoliberalism has been a huge generator of bureaucracy. To argue otherwise is simply not empirically defensible.

RS           The more they talk about getting rid of it the more they generate. They have no interest in allowing people to participate in decision-making. Diverse forms of living are being destroyed and they want us to become atomised and passive consumers with no involvement in society, except as taxpayers.

SM           So how can we frame the real alternatives, which as the title of your book suggests, are not only out there but urgently needed. I can’t imagine wading into an election and trying to persuade people to vote for ‘no growth’, when they have been told all their lives, by right and left, that growth means prosperity. Perhaps we should abandon electoral politics. But if we don’t take that drastic step, how will we persuade people to vote against growth?

RS        Well, I don’t think we should forget electoral politics. You need to fight on as many grounds there are to fight on. My ideas on degrowth come from the décroissance movement   in France. They have a centre on the border between France and Spain. I’ve been there. I also attended a conference of the movement in Leipzig where  3,000 or so people, mainly young, debated degrowth and none of these people see it as something on which you can build a political party. But it’s the word, it’s a great word from which you can start rethinking ecology and economics. The basic notion is not that we can’t grow but that the way we’re growing and what we’re growing needs to be looked at. Carbon-based economies have to be checked. We can have growth in education, in libraries, in the things which help us in creating a convivial life not based solely on consumerism and work, but on a series of other values. Economic growth as it exists simply isn’t delivering. It promises jobs but isn’t delivering them. What we want are not simply jobs, but useful work in a convivial society. We’re shooting for the sky. Politics is the art of the possible, but agitation is the art of the desirable, so we need to have  an approach which stands between or combines both.

SM On the subject of growth, do you agree that we should launch a major attack on the way it is measured, ie GDP? To be honest this is a bee in my bonnet. GDP is a nonsensical measure and one which debases the work of anyone who isn’t directly paid for it. Even the European Commission has looked into it, hosted a conference on alternatives. If you agree, how could we measure the prosperity of a society, or should we see that as something which by definition can’t be measured?

RS Well, there’s the Human Development Index – the HDI - which is recognised by the UN Development Project, and there’s the Gini index which measures inequality. They are useful alternatives.

SM I agree. But they don’t cover all the possible sources of wealth and wellbeing. HDI is certainly a step forward if you compare it to GDP, which amongst other things excludes work done in the home that doesn’t involve the production of saleable items, it excludes the informal economy, so it excludes probably most of the work done by women in the world, and most work done by subsistence farmers.

RS  HDI does go some way to achieving this but we also need perhaps some way of measuring what I have called conviviality in a society.

SM  As far as I know absolutely every other species, plant, animal, fungus, whatever, measures its success in terms of fertility, in terms of how many babies it produces. We don’t and we can’t, though all of this is quite recent even for our species. We could certainly reproduce more but first of all, without wanting to succumb to neo-Malthusianism, we’re not sure we want to increase our numbers; secondly, there’s the question of women’s rights, the right to control one’s own reproductive behaviour. However, infant mortality might provide a way of measuring a society’s success, especially if combined with a measure of availability of education to girls and women.

RS All of this does connect to the degrowth concept. Ways of measuring real social wellbeing are worth a greater exploration. The issue raises fundamental questions: why are we growing? Are we living wrong? Why are we living wrong? Why are we seeing increasing rates of obesity and cancer? People are smoking less yet the incidence of cancer is still rising.

SM Let me move on again, this time to a subject on which we appear to disagree. The left, you say “must move beyond its earlier preoccupation with class struggle”. I can’t agree. This is what the left is for. Class is fundamental to any real understanding of the world. Although not rooted in biology, as sex is – which doesn’t define gender but contributes to it – and as race most certainly isn’t (and these are three of the four major hierarchies of oppression, along with disability), class is a real, objective phenomenon which – perhaps this is more apparent if you come from the English working class - can be as much of a social barrier as any of the others. Why do you see it as an outmoded preoccupation?  People work for wages all over the world, but it’s true that class consciousness has been lost to a great extent, and that the economy has been transformed by globalisation and technological development. The industrial workers were the ones with the power to challenge the system, but in the 1980s it became clear, particularly in one strike by civil servants, that  office workers, those strategically positioned, for example high level ICT workers, could also exert muscle, as can transport workers. The system is vulnerable in all kind  of ways, including new ways involving computer systems, transport systems, the arteries of capitalism. But  creative thinking has been missing, as much as class consciousness. People have been encouraged, and with a great deal of success, to see their aspirations in individualist terms. All of this shouldn’t obscure the fact that unless we can get rid of class we haven’t achieved much. I mean, we could achieve a kind of liberal paradise in which a white male, neither young nor old nor having any kind of physical or mental disability, would be as likely to find himself a victim of oppression as a black, disabled elderly woman. But there would still be oppression, so all we would have done is shuffle the colour and gender cards. I must stress that I don’t see socialism as being about equality of opportunity at all. It’s about equality of treatment and equality of outcome, with solidarity making up for the fact that absolute equality of the things that are called intelligence or talent, even of luck, is not possible.

RS My criticisms were aimed at traditional Marxists who saw the industrial working class in the metropolitan countries as key to being able to create socialism, and those who still cling to that idea. History has moved beyond that. The working class is atomised and dispersed and this has had all kinds of influence on consciousness. Class in itself still exists, clearly: the proletariat as defined by Marx, people who have to sell their labour to survive, is in some ways bigger than ever. But the class for itself – one with class consciousness antagonistic to the bourgeoisie, as EP Thomson described it in The Making of the English Working Class, is more problematic. Now class is being remade by capital through globalisation and technology and we need to rethink class in fundamental ways. And that’s what I was trying to get at. Do we call this force the working class, do we use Negri’s term, the multitude? I’m not sure that’s important, but what is important is the understanding that the people who are at the bottom are exploited and need to empower themselves. Not only so that they’re no longer exploited, but so that exploitation no longer exists. That last is a fundamental notion which we get from Marxism and we need to keep it while shedding the idea that the industrial working class is the core component of the inevitable triumph of communism. One thing we need to do is junk the concept of full employment. So much work we do is useless or even destructive. We do it just to survive. We need other ways to distribute society’s wealth. The old socialist obsession with the centrality of the labour market needs to be questioned. Obviously work needs to take place. At the moment all that has to be said is “if you do this we’ll create jobs but if you do that we’ll take them away.” Getting away from the jobs obsession is the only way this can be effectively challenged.

SM: There’s a lot of talk right now about a Universal Basic Income (UBI). There are right wing ideas, such as abolishing all benefits other than your UBI and then you have to buy your basic needs including services currently provided by the state. This is similar to the more limited concept of ‘vouchers’ which was the obsession of the British right in the 1980s, though considering they were in power for the entire decade and beyond they never did much about it, suggesting none of their ideas was practicable. Then there are left versions of UBI, which left enthusiasts prefer to call ‘Citizen's Income’, because, to quote a friend who is amongst those enthusiasts,  the term “emphasises the right of every citizen to a non means tested payment.”[1] Of course, not only is a lot of work done that is destructive of the bodies and minds of those doing it as well as destructive in a broader sense, of society, community and the environment. More time would enable a much more dynamic social interaction, more conviviality, to use your word. Here in my village we had a problem with an invasive plant that was changing the ecology of our river, and the only way to deal with it was by wading in and pulling it up by the roots, so people got together and did just that, as unpaid volunteers. Then they went back to what may in some cases at least will have been socially useless or destructive jobs.

RS: That’s true. Freeing up resources so that people can do work that needs to be done and this would point towards an ecologically saner society that gets us away from this consumerism, from work so many hours, consume so many hours, sleep so many hours-

SM: Metro Boulot Dodo, as the French say. To translate loosely: commute, work, sleep.  That’s what we both want to overcome. The question, as ever however, is how we get from here to there?

RS: I think we have to begin with the realisation that as a first step we need to democratise investment. As a society we need to be able to take democratic decisions about how and where to invest our economic surplus. The individualism you talked about earlier encourages people also to see random decisions by private investors as those investors exercising their rights. We have made a beginning on this in Canada where we have created a large ‘third sector’ of enterprises which do not exist for profit but to provide services.

SM: We have a problem in Europe due to the EU’s competition policy, which makes it at best difficult and at worst illegal to incentivise investment, which might be a useful transitional strategy. But I’ll give you the last word. So, to repeat myself, how do we get from here to there, and where will ‘there’ be when we get there?

RS: Well, we need to combine the practical with the visionary. Practical, workable proposals that enable people to imagine a world in which we value things differently, and value ourselves not primarily as individuals but as interacting subjects in supportive, reciprocal relationships. But change won’t come in an apocalyptic thunderclap. The need to bring it about, however, is increasingly urgent if we are to avoid what I call at the end of my book “heading over an economic and ecological cliff.”



[1] FE Andrews, retired welfare rights advisor from the north of England, in an email to Steve McGiffen