Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Build us lots and lots and lots. How to stop the countryside turning into a giant chicken

Dead folk singer Phil Ochs once acidly suggested that liberals “were ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, and ten degrees to the right of centre when it affects them personally.” 

The Daily Telegraph’s “Hands off our Land” campaign against Tory plans for a planning free for all, suggests that the opposite is true of rural conservatives.

But the campaign also shows that political schizophrenia is not an answer to society’s ever more urgent problems. One eye is one too few.

The UK government’s Draft National Planning Policy Framework says that “decision-makers at every level” need to “assume that the default answer to the development proposal is ‘yes’”. The Torygraph and its rural readers fear the countryside, protected since the 1940s, will be submerged in new houses.

For the Conservatives, it’s all about the need to reinvigorate economic growth. The government “can’t be ambivalent about growth” says the misnamed “planning” minister Greg Clark, while growth rates linger in the doldrums of 0.2 per cent

But the trouble with economic growth is that it’s a zero sum game, when you are both participants. When you win, you lose too.

Economic growth is not the result of passive consumers or greedy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs may well be greedy, but everyone who is not independently wealthy, has an interest in economic growth happening in this society.

Suppose the Tories are right and ripping up planning laws gives a spurt to economic growth. Millions of people whose livelihood depends on the building industry will breathe a sigh of relief. Architects, plasterers, roofers get jobs. There will be a ripple effect for everyone connected with the housing industry – those who provide furniture, decoration etc. If you work for B&Q you have an “interest” in more homes being built.

As everywhere in capitalism, there is a choice. Get work and watch while England’s green and pleasant land is covered in concrete and asphalt. Or live with the alternative of declining growth, as poverty and homelessness spreads, and society gets nastier and nastier.

Which would you prefer, asphyxiation or drowning?

The trouble with the George Osborne growth logic is that it will only become more desperate to prove it works, even as it conspicuously fails. All the evidence suggests we are in the middle of an economic depression, that economic growth might have temporary positive blips, but won’t return to the black durably.

But that won’t stop the Tories trying. It won’t end with ripping up planning laws and building on the green belt. Once that experiment doesn’t provide enough satisfaction, then other “restrictions” and regulations will begin to look tastier and tastier like the man who turns into a giant chicken in the Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Expect exemptions to the minimum wage. And if that doesn’t work, we can always send children up chimneys.

Under the present rules of the game, we can’t do anything but lose one way or the other. “Notice the trap in which we’re placed,” the social ecologist Murray Bookchin once said.

“We are told that we must have jobs. If we must have jobs we have must economic growth. Now why are the two co-related except for the fact that we live in a world based on private property, organized around corporations, which, in turn, have to grow or die? At that point, by playing according to these insane rules, we are always going to be the losers, because there can’t be enough growth to supply enough jobs to supply enough means of life within the framework of this kind of set-up.”

The first step is to recognise the double bind. Most of us need paid jobs to physically survive. But even without the recession, jobs are becoming more scarce as the technological need for them declines. Computerisation has increased productivity, and thus corporate profits, whilst at the same time reducing employment. Last year, the economic advisor to Barack Obama, Laurence Summers, said US unemployment was “structural”, not just “cyclical”. Translated, this means a lot of unemployment will endure after the economic downturn is over.

But you still need a job to survive. While this frantic need remains ripping up planning laws and tarmacing all over the countryside is a solution of sorts. The default answer is yes. But for the Conservatives to claim it’s “sustainable” is a supreme example of doublespeak. It couldn’t be more unsustainable. It can’t go on forever.

The only sustainable solution is to break the current, to severe the connection between the unavoidable need for income and its sating in paid employment. Economist Harry Shutt talks about “dethroning the god of growth”.

“Working – in the sense of having or seeking a job – should no longer be seen as an essential precondition of the right to exist in human society,” he says, “and that alternatively all should be entitled to as basic income as of right.” Enterprises would have to serve a public purpose and not exist to make a profit for shareholders.

While we’re “starving” for jobs, the countryside will always have a tendency to turn into a giant chicken.

Here, for no good reason, is a trailer for a documentary about Phil Ochs. It's not about houses but it does feature Billy Bragg


  1. I find it hard to work out whether the Tories believe their measures will create growth - and are thus incompetent/ideologists - and to what extent they know it won't create growth but are prepared to have a bumpy ride for the sake of their long-term policy objectives: less tax on the rich, more freedom for corporations, paying tax take to corporations etc

    In terms of fighting them it barely matters but I'd be interested to know.

  2. I think it's probably a combination of the two. They are faithfully representing the interest of their donors and rich supporters. They are, in that sense a vehicle. But they probably believe in the supply-side gunk, that cutting taxing on corporations and releasing regulation, will 'liberate' growth.
    I think it's an insulated ideology. If it doesn't work, it's never the theory that's at fault. Much as in Polanyi's Great Transformation, economic liberals blamed human stupidly for the fact that utopia didn't result and things didn't turn out as planned.
    But I don't have an insight into the recesses of George Osborne's mind which is probably a good thing for my mental health.
    One thing I find odd though is that they want to cut funding for the police. Thatcher did the complete opposite and raised their salaries, for obvious reasons. But this generation of Thatcherites aren't doing it. That, from their point of view, seems weird. Maybe they are really incompetent and don't know where the interest lies