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9 February 2012updated 11 Sep 2021 9:59am

Why greens can build the new capitalism

This is no straight fight between the free market and the state.

By Ruth Davis

Politicians have queued up to announce the dawn of the era of ‘new capitalism’. Yet many commentators seemed less convinced; instead seeing merely the triumph of the old capitalism over any viable alternative. It seemed that having got drunk, fallen over and been sick in its hat, capitalism had woken up in 2012 feeling remarkably perky. It was the rest of us who had the hangover.

No wonder then that pundits were quick to ask Ed Miliband whether ‘responsible capitalism’ was anything more than a displacement activity for a man losing an argument? And perhaps even more tellingly, that no-one really bothered to ask David Cameron how seriously we should take his variant, ‘popular capitalism’? Nick Clegg’s pitch on the John Lewis economy elicited little public reaction beyond some tired jokes about fitted curtains.

Neither the ennui of the commentators nor the threadbare propositions of the major parties really get to the point. Public anger at the ineptitude and corruption of political elites and institutions is on a slow-burn. Parliament, press, the police, the banking system, the European union, our pension schemes, elderly care: all have proved rotten or fragile in one way or another. Even apparently immutable external realities like the climate have become sources of confusion and anxiety. An alternative to the current system there must be, even if those paid to do so have not yet dreamt it up.

But conceiving of such an alternative and populating it with useful ideas, means seeing beyond the sixth form history text books: for this is no straight fight between the free market and the state. Indeed, what many people seem to long for are working lives over which they have more control; not micro-managed by government, subject to the whims of unregulated capital, or humiliated by incompetent managers. Fulfilling this longing will require re-inventing some things which have been long-since abandoned; enterprises rooted in local communities; capital markets focused on nurturing local businesses and stewarding natural resources; and above all, a political ethos which recognises value above and beyond that which can or will delivered by financial markets.

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These are the challenges facing the architects of a ‘new capitalism’, if they are serious. They are also challenges that environmentalists face every day; because amongst the most serious casualties of the old order is the well-being of our planet – our climate, land and seas. Neither the value of nature to people or the dependence of people on nature are recognised by global capital. But then nor did large-scale state interventions such as the Common Agricultural Policy – or the state sanctioned exploitation of the old socialist regimes of Eastern Europe – serve us better.

Precisely because environmental campaigners have had to anatomise these failures, we are well-placed to suggest practical steps towards a better and more sustainable economy. Any economic model which ignores the relationship between place and people, risks further damage to our climate, or erodes rather than sustains our scarce natural resource base, is not fit for purpose.

A sense of place is central to responsible capitalism because laying down and sustaining roots is essential to thriving human communities. Restless capital requires rootless people; businesses move to find cheap labour, or labour must move to find jobs. But the resulting spatial disorientation, which for many is a refined form of torture, separates families and dissolves communities. It is also an environmental poison, destroying our bond with what surrounds us, and the stewardship which that bond brings forth.

Building an economy that gives people settled work within their own communities is a modest yet profoundly radical proposal. Bringing it about means creating financial institutions whose resources are ring-fenced for the support of local businesses – business which in turn, pay people enough to live where they work. Any model of responsible capitalism that fails to meet these basic tests is simply not worthy of the name: nor can it provide the human foundations necessary for the long-term protection of our environment.

Place and value should also govern how we cherish our land and seas. Yet current fisheries policy in the UK, for example, illustrates everything that is bad about the pact between modern government and the market. Micro-managed from Brussels on principles of faux efficiency, the Common Fisheries Policy ensures that fewer and fewer people catch more and more fish. By failing to restrain over-fishing by vast factory ships that rake the sea bed as if they were mining it, and put smaller vessels out of business, the CFP has devastated our oceans, sucked jobs and value out of the fishing industry, ignored and trampled on tradition and destroyed communities. Yet since its inception, no British government has had the nerve to take on its toxic combination of high handed managerialism and market-driven ‘efficiencies’. Even now, the Ccalition are seeking to create a fresh market in tradable, privatised fishing rights; rights which will ultimately be bought up by industrial conglomerates or traded by arm-chair skippers. Responsible capitalism would start again; it would return control of our fisheries to local communities and reward fishing rights to those willing to use their traditional skills to catch high quality fish from healthy seas. And environmentalists should support such an approach.

The state-backed industrial monopoly which threatens our oceans is a characteristic product of modern neo-liberalism; such monopolies destroy value in the economy, and also spell death to environmental ambition. One such has dominated our energy provision since privatisation. Six companies own the majority of British energy infrastructure and sell electricity to majority of British households and businesses. By common consent, these companies have sweated our assets, hiked our bills, and hidden their own profits. They have also resisted every attempt to build a cleaner energy system, because such a system would not guarantee them their current level of returns. They have served up dirty power at exorbitant cost for decades, and no government has taken them on.

We are now at a cross-roads; a once in a generation opportunity exist to open up the energy market to more local generators, provide incentives for energy saving and ensure that new infrastructure meets modern pollution standards. A government that was serious about ‘responsible capitalism’ would end the monopoly, and insist on a system that met the long-term needs of the country, not the short-term needs of energy company share-holders. It would also ensure that Britain had the skills and manufacturing base needed to build a new energy system; and ultimately to sell cleaner technologies and fresh know-how to others.

A renewed sense of place; a commitment to value above efficiency; a willingness to challenge vested interests and restore economic power to local communities; all these things would characterise a government that really believed in responsible capitalism. They would also take us several steps towards a green and more sustainable economy. Building a new economy is the hard work that lies before all of us.

Ruth Davis is chief policy adviser at Greenpeace.