31 Aug 2011

'economics can be bent towards serving the needs of humanity and nature rather than its own violent abstract growth'

Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements (Review)

This is a vital book for those who, like me, recognise that there is much to stand against in our current consumer culture, but who find themselves caught between light-bulb replacing platitudes on one side, and angry radicalism on the other. It turns out that the protest movement is broader and more diverse than I realised, and more thought-out and intentional than the news footage would imply.

Anyone with a social conscience and a eye on the newspapers knows that the consumer society is not all it seems, that there is a catalogue of atrocities behind the shiny veneer. We know that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, that trade is unfair, that our consumption patterns are unsustainable, and that globalisation has not delivered its much lauded benefits evenly. The problem is, what do you do about it? How else could it work? And even if we can imagine an alternative, where do you start dismantling a whole world order?

Babylon and Beyond explores the many different answers to those questions. For some, the answer lies in reform of our financial institutions, making sure globalisation continues, but more fairly, at a workable pace. Others believe that the system is beyond repair, and we need communism instead, or to revert to peasant farming and self-sufficiency. Some want to focus on corporations, others on monetary reform. There are an awful lot of ideas and potential solutions out there, some good, practical and possible, others not so useful.

Derek Wall is a historian and an economist, and a leading member of the UK Green Party, which makes him the perfect guide through this maze of ideas. Wall knows which voices are the ones worth listening too, whether he agrees with them or not. So George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz get a whole chapter between them, as the leading voices for change within the capitalist system, a kind of `more but better' globalisation that Wall suggests `illustrates the truth that a bridge that only stands on one side of the river is no bridge at all'. David Korten and Naomi Klein, with their focus on corporations and brands, are another chapter. Localism, marxism and anarchism are also explored.

For me personally, the chapter on ecosocialism resonated the most, a marriage between green politics and a marxist understanding of capitalism. The view that capitalism is responsible for the current ecological crisis is self-evident to me, so I sympathise with the ecosocialist cause. I also value the insight that there are two kinds of environmentalism - north and south. In the north, environmentalism is a choice, an optional concern. In the south, it is a matter of life and death.

The future will undoubtedly pick and choose from many of the different philosophies here, but what I appreciate most is that Wall is confident that these movements are not wasting their time. Although some are not going far enough, and some are barking up the wrong tree, Wall sees hope in all sorts of places, like the slow movement, open source software, allotments. In fact underpinning the book is the belief that `economics can be bent towards serving the needs of humanity and nature rather than its own violent abstract growth', and that's an important message.

Jeremy Williams

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