15 Jun 2008

Dr David Fleming presents 'Energy and Anarchy'

"If we are going to deal with the energy/climate problem with any success at all, we will have to do it ourselves. And we will need to start by thinking in a completely different way. The market is not the solution; it is part of the problem. The neglected philosophy of anarchism has something to tell us which we need to know." argues David Fleming.

Well George Galloway could not make our debate at the climate forum yesterday but there is a very good account of the discussion on ecosocialism between Alan Thornett, Jonathan Neale and myself that happened instead.

I also spoke at workshop in the morning with David Fleming that turned out to be great fun and very useful. I was very impressed by David Fleming!

David was one of those people along with Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ekins who did so much to get the Ecology Party on its feet in the late 1970s, I have got some big disagreements with Jonathon on population and flying and capitalism and 'a single leader'. However at the time there was no doubt that he moved the Party from being somewhat right wing and Malthusian to something more radical and with David, etc, got it adminstratively strong enough to contest 50 seats at the General Election of 1979.

1979 saw the party grow to about 8,000 members (more than it has now!). David is obviously a bit of part time visionary, who gets the message a decade or two before the rest of us. And he seems good at putting the vision into practical action.

I have never met David before and I assumed that I would disagree with him quite strongly at the workshop. The title of our work shop was 'Energy and anarchy', I guessed (wrongly) that he would come up with some warmed up Keynesianism, along the lines of markets 'are anarchic' and need some strong government regulation.

In fact his argument was that anarchy in a very particular sense is a good thing and key to dealing with climate change. He gave a fascinating and very detailed account, including a potted history of anarchism and quoted from memory a great chunk of verse from Milton. Milton used anarchy in the sense of the chaos that existed before the creation of the universe!

David's argument, which fits very well with my approach, is that markets and state control produced flawed, inefficient and anti-human economies. He essentially argued that 'economic' activity undertaken for intrinsic reasons works best and that both the carrot of market incentives and the stick of heavy handed state control produced chaos.

Like me he tended to stress the importance of commons regimes and a variety of non market non state economics...essentially 'presence' people getting involved and on with stuff because it needed doing, was enjoyable and allowed for creativity.

He produced some very heavy intellectual ammunition, much of it new to me, to explain why market incentives actually created a clear disincentive effect! I was charmed and entertained by his amusing and fascinating presentation. I think he has provided some very useful material in support of the commons/open source/social sharing and an excellent critique of traditional state planning and markets.

I had some clear areas of disagreement. For example, he did not stress the necessity of political activity/struggle, the good theory has to work within a context where commons especially in areas of forest governed by indigenous peoples are being enclosed and destroyed everyday. Equally while the NHS could move in a more commons direction, open source medical research, more community provision, even stronger stress on prevention, elimination of targets that distort, at present it is being privatised by Brown and risks being run by corporations. I don't think though David can be expected to do everything and his specialist work on 'anarchy' commons, etc is very impressive, certainly he contributed to the intellectual battle against the market with a powerful microeconomic case that markets are inefficient.

Paul, who I met on the climate march and is an engaged Buddhist, remarked to me, before and after the meeting, that he was a bit flabbergasted by David's use of the term lean economics. Paul had he told me the 'misfortune' to have been taught at Cardiff by Professor Patrick Minford. Minford used lean to mean cutting out all the 'deadwood' that got in the way of 'providing for the customer' i.e. trade union rights and anything that benefitted workers, the environment. There is nothing progressive about this kind of lean.

I was also intrigued by the fact that David apparently invented the concept of 'tradeable energy quotas'. I tend to be a bit critical of this concept. Greens think they use less energy than the rest of humanity and would be able to sell their quotas, so plenty of greens love the idea. My concern is that markets allow the wealthy to consume and the poor who cannot afford biscuits (or emissions quotas) go hungry. I am also concerned that such quotas will not work unless structures such as cheap public transport exist.

I was slightly mystified that some one with a more radical critique of the market than myself believed in using a market mechanism, however unlike some advocates of emissions trading, David was explict in the need for much deeper structural change and was aware of the limits of markets. In the context of major structural change and explicit redistribution, I am happy to defend Green Party policy in this area, David's work certainly makes this somewhat easier.

In all I was genuinely very impressed by David Fleming both in terms of his contribution to economic theory and the intellectually strong/entertaining presentation. He will be speaking at Green Party conference in the autumn, I highly recommended you listen to him. I think he is the kind of person who is generous enough to work with people like me who may have some criticism but have a big overlap as well. To be honest I could have disagreed with everything he said and still have found it a useful experience, he makes you think a bit more deeply and I have a big prejudice in favour of the thoughtful.

Its very nice to go to a workshop suspecting likely disagreement and to infact find that despite disagreement, useful material was gained and one was mentally stimulated.

Too often I come across people who seem to think that the ecological crises is so severe that we must not waste time thinking about how to solve it.

Anti-intellectualism will kill us, literally. Getting to an ecologically sustainable and socially just society has to be more than a slogan. Unless we deal with a huge range of big problems it throws up, we might as will sit back and drink our selves to death on special brew. Its not enough to say we are green, follow us.

My good friend Nick Hutton told me that he felt too often it was about creating 'a universal alliance of nice people' and that climate campaigners were failing to think strategically enough. Nick is absolutely correct to be provocative in this way. What a pleasure though to learn some lessons from David Fleming.

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