Green social democracy can rescue capitalism from itself

A growing number of businesses recognise that their self-interest is best served by an economy that is not fatally undermined by climate change.

We are living through not one but two crises of capitalism. The first one – the economic crisis which has followed the financial crash of 2008 – everyone knows about. The second is less familiar. This is the crisis of the global environment.

A crisis of capitalism occurs when the dynamics and forces of the system build up costs and risks to such an extent that they end up undermining themselves, creating a self-perpetuating spiral which can only be escaped through state intervention – by governments effectively saving capitalism from itself. 

This is of course precisely what has happened in the economy since 2008. An unsustainable boom in lending and credit, driven by a huge expansion of the financial sector, led to an asset price bubble and subsequent collapse, followed by a retrenchment in spending, leading to loss of output and rising unemployment. The slump into which these events pushed the economy could only be escaped via massive state intervention – initially in bailing out the banks, and then in huge injections of demand, first fiscal (stimulus) then monetary (quantitative easing), a process which is still not complete in any of the major western economies. 

The environmental crisis is now of the same kind. This is most obviously the case in respect of climate change. It is now clear that the global economy cannot continue to burn fossil fuels as its main source of energy: the carbon embodied in them, if released into the atmosphere, will cause changes to the climate not seen since the last ice age. As the Stern Report showed, even leaving aside the human cost, the economic losses caused by such events would be equivalent in this century to the cost of the two world wars and Great Depression of the last. In its continued investment in fossil fuels, capitalism is undermining itself. 

But the crisis is wider than this. If we look at world food and energy prices over the last six years, in 2008 both spiked, then nosedived as the financial crisis took an axe to demand. But since then, while global economic growth has recovered only slowly, food prices have risen back above their 2008 peak, and oil prices are today above $100 a barrel. Why? Because supply cannot keep pace with demand. The environmental crisis now is not just one of excess pollution, but of inadequate supply of resources – the inability of the global environment under present economic conditions to provide enough energy, food and other commodities to meet demand at stable prices.  In the past, environmental costs were largely imposed on the economic periphery – air pollution in poor urban areas or the destruction of rainforests. No more. Now resource scarcity is affecting prices right at the heart of the global economy.

In this sense, the environmental crisis must now – finally – be regarded not merely as a crisis of ecosystems, or of human values, but as a crisis of capitalism, in the sense that the dynamics of capitalist growth are now undermining themselves.

In the face of this new reality, the left needs to enlarge its understanding of both capitalism and social democracy.

Modern social democracy came into being in the 20th century to manage a capitalism which was unable to manage itself. When the financial crisis of 1929 hit, capitalism fell into a slump and could not get out of it without state support – in the US through Roosevelt’s New Deal, in Europe through rearmament and ultimately war. After 1945, social democrats rescued this failing capitalist system from itself by creating welfare states, secondary and tertiary education and national health systems, through strong trade unions and Keynesian fiscal and monetary policy.

Once again it is only governments which can rescue capitalism from the slump into which it has fallen. But the traditional social democratic programme will now not be enough. Today we also need to manage the environmental impacts of a system rapidly destroying the foundations on which it rests. 

In the past this would not have been easy. Traditionally the left saw environmental protection as a luxury which could only be afforded once wealth had been generated.  Environmental policies which imposed costs on industry risked damaging growth and destroying jobs. Environmentalism was a minority middle class movement, with no economic interests underpinning its politics. 

But that is no longer true. Today the most powerful voices in favour of environmental protection are arguably not the traditional green NGOs but the major corporations in the rapidly growing green economy. The UK’s share of this market is the sixth largest in the world, at nearly 4 per cent. Now worth over £120bn, the UK sector is itself growing at around 4 per cent per annum – one of the few major sectors currently doing so. It already sustains just under a million jobs. 

This change in the economics of environmental protection is of vital importance to social democrats. For it changes the politics. 

When social democracy rescued 20th century capitalism from itself it did so through a powerful coalition of forces. At its base was the working class, organised through trade unions and social democratic and labour parties. But critical too was the support of a significant proportion of the business community, and the middle classes who worked in it.  The business class by no means universally supported social democratic parties and governments in the post-war period, but enough of them split apart from their ideologically backward-looking peers to create decisive support for the Keynesian programme and the creation of the welfare state. Yes, this involved giving a larger share of their profits to the workers and to the state in taxes; but the benefits in terms of the growth of demand for the goods and services they produced more than outweighed the cost.

Exactly the same phenomenon is happening now over environmental policy. The traditional business view can still be heard – such policy is bad for business, growth and jobs. But it is now matched by the voice of businesses who will benefit from it, and who understand that their self-interest is best served by an economy that is not fatally undermined by rising resource prices and the impacts of climate change.

So just as social democrats in the 20th century forged a cross-class, cross-industry coalition in favour of the welfare state, so social democrats today need to forge a comparable alliance in favour of the environmentally-based economy. Green politics is no longer simply about a middle class environmental movement: it is now joined by powerful economic interests. Social democrats have to learn from how they built the welfare state economy in the 20th century in order to do it again for the green economy of the 21st.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Politics at University College London and author of The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development and the Politics of the Future (Pluto Press)

A longer version of this piece appears in the current edition of Fabian Review

Drax power station in north Yorkshire, the largest coal-fired station in western Europe. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy at UCL and at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. He is co-editor of the Political Quarterly

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era