There’s a lot of negative noise in politics at the moment. Noise, bad news, vitriol and bile. It’s the reason we’re striving to find another, fairer, socially responsible, more egalitarian way. But what are our options? How does our thinking need to change? One aspect is that of growth. We’re told that perpetual economic growth is good. But growth ad infinitum, when the Earth has finite resources, is a logical and ecological impossibility.

When I spotted a poster promoting a guest lecture by Giorgos Kallis, the co-author of a book named The Degrowth Hypothesis, at the University of Manchester back in February, I took the opportunity to learn about this alternative viewpoint and strategy. The event included a post-lecture conversation with other thinkers on the subject, one of whom was Mark Burton from the Steady State Manchester, who added a local perspective to the discussion.

Afterwards, I approached Steady State to find out more about their aims, and with so much to say on all sorts of related topics, we’ve split the interview into two parts. This issue, we’re focusing on the aspects of the interview that are broadly applicable across the UK and beyond, asking questions about the group’s thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn, progressive politics, TTIP, Universal Basic Income, and more, all answered by Mark Burton from the Steady State Manchester.

I first encountered the Steady State group at a seminar exploring the ideas of the ‘degrowth’ concept. Can you briefly explain degrowth and how it relates to your post-growth theory?

Degrowth is a way of changing the conversation away from one centred on the idea of economic growth, which is commonly taken to be a ‘good thing’. Instead it focuses on human qualities of solidarity, caring, conviviality, and stewardship. Degrowth recognises both the limits to growth, set by the physical qualities of the earth and its ecosystem – you can’t keep growing indefinitely and to do so is already tipping us into a series of possibly terminal ecological crises – and its social and economic contradictions of social alienation and an unstable economic system.

Looked at quantitatively, we need to decrease the scale of the economy, in terms of its material flows and impacts and once it is at a viable size maintain it at in more or less steady state. But more than a reduction in scale, we argue that by prioritising sharing, equality and treading lightly on the earth we can actually live better. Put in simple terms, we advocate ‘living better, with less’.

Is there one main aspect of society you’d like to target first or does it require wide cultural change?

We need to urgently and radically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and simultaneously guarantee basic living standards, in a society that has abandoned that aim for much of its population, while rebuilding social solidarity among us all. Pretty much everything else follows from those aims.

Where do you stand on Corbynomics?

The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the appointment of John McDonnell signals a refreshing break from the politics of austerity and the economically illiterate notion of running a permanent government surplus. At last we are seeing Labour openly recognise that a government can borrow at advantageous rates and can, where necessary and appropriate, create money (although they now seem to have gone back on this latter point).

While the new leadership is widely portrayed as of the ‘far left’, its approach is more Keynesian than Marxist. Far from overthrowing capitalism, it recognises that the State needs to intervene in the capitalist economy, both to regulate it and to moderate the cycle of boom and bust (and provide protection to those who would otherwise be vulnerable). Much of the inspiration seems to come from a small group of thinkers who could be called post-Keynesian. Indeed, with Corbyn’s generally high commitment to the environment, we might see Corbynomics as Green Keynesianism. But that is also where the problems lie.

Stimulating the economy for social and environmental benefit means using things like investment in public transport, housing and massive programmes of insulation for buildings, to create jobs, whose occupants then spend their wages in the economy, so contributing to taxes, and to broader economic well-being. This is the so-called ‘Keynesian multiplier’, but those multiplier effects are likely to mean greater consumption, meaning greater resource throughput, and hence increased greenhouse gas emissions and other kinds of damage to the ecosystems we all depend on.

It is sometimes argued that there is a distinction between stimulating investment and stimulating consumption. But the distinction seems difficult to sustain after the first round of expenditure, since the whole point of Keynesian stimulus is to re-energise economic activity and that inherently involves consumption.

Both Corbyn and McDonnell talk about an expanding economy and investment to restore economic ‘growth’. But growth alone does nothing about inequality; indeed, the proceeds tend to go disproportionately to the better off. And we know that increases in average prosperity do not necessarily translate into increases in happiness and well-being.

But while we make these criticisms, which also apply to the entire political spectrum, we welcome some of the specific proposals associated with Corbyn, such as limiting pay ratios, and incentivising companies to pay the Living Wage, banning zero-hours contracts, using corporation tax to create a national investment bank. Yes, we will still need investment to build a balanced economy based on the principle of sufficiency.

How far do you think a Left alliance might be feasible or successful?

Yes, potentially it could be. Branding it as Left is perhaps the wrong way to go since this tends to define the alliance in minority terms. Caroline Lucas suggests a “progressive alliance”, but ‘progress’ is itself a problematic term. We would argue for one around our concept of the Viable Economy and Society, but we’ve some way to go before that terminology and thinking gains sufficient support as a way of capturing the need to live well, with equity and within planetary limits, and with the policies required to do that.

Could the referendum result affect your aims? Can we see a more equal Manchester region in a future without the neoliberal growth strategies underpinning the EU, or do you fear for a more Draconian model but on a more nationally focused power structure?

While no big fans of the EU as it exists, we very much fear what has been unleashed and most of us were critical remainers. Assuming that Brexit becomes a reality, we need to look at how it can be an opportunity for a relative re-localisation of the economy for a more resilient and less exposed economy, what has been called a ‘progressive protectionism’. However, we are internationalists, wanting to learn from experiences overseas and end the reliance of countries like ours on the unfair and unsustainable exploitation of people and environments all over the world.

How do you feel about the prospect of a TTIP arrangement?

Frightening, since it subjects democratic decisions of elected governments to the interests of big business. It would reduce social and environmental protections and make it harder to put needed ones in place.

Regarding your vision for a shorter working week and the living wage, what is your opinion of Universal Basic Income?

We are interested in it and are actively studying it. It has many positives, including being a response to structural employment and the stigmatisation of selective welfare provisions. However, there are questions about levels and affordability (which we think can be overcome) and about what people would actually do with their time. Without investment in cultural development it is perhaps unlikely that everyone will use their free time in ways that contribute to community and personal well-being.

Part Two, on the local context, will be published with issue #35.
steadystatemanchester.net

Ian Pennington