24 – The Elephant in the Tent (10 July 09)

see also the new Sampiemon column on Obama in Moscow

    Much progressive political energy is lost as it is channelled toward narrowly conceived causes, where it may do some good but where much of it is wasted. This was an overwhelming impression I had when attending the Tallberg forum in Sweden the week before last. It was, to be sure, a wonderful occasion to meet some of the roughly 400 people who had come from literally all corners of the world and who – certainly the ones I met – clearly had their hearts in the right place. I do not want to detract from their seriousness and hard work as they try to help alleviate dire conditions of poverty, ecological crisis, and other fairly concrete ills of the world in connection to which human action might make a difference. But would their causes not be better served if at least some of this energy was channelled into efforts to revive countervailing power against the forces that cause the problems of their concern to begin with?
     One of the biggest central notions of the forum is ‘sustainable development’. When listening to the earnest accounts presented at one of the preliminary sessions I suddenly felt a compulsion to comment on it all as an outsider, thinking myself to be eminently qualified by the fact that the term sustainable development had, until then, giving me the jitters. Practically all attention has gone to sustainable methods, while the very things to be developed tend to get a cursory glance and appear to be mostly taken for granted. I was encouraged by some of the remarks from previous speakers that had given me the impression of political frustration, traditionally thought to be of a ‘leftist’ signature, trying to get out. But the political dimension to practically all problems raised remained undiscussed.
     If you believe in a marketplace of ideas ‘sustainable development’ must be considered successful. But that marketplace metaphor has always been a silly analogy. Without scarcity you do not have a market, and ideas are like grains of sand on the beach: you can fling them against the wind, build castles with them, and flush them into a sea where they will remain unnoticed forever. Those that catch on and capture large audiences require a different metaphor. Infection – with accompanying imagery of epidemics and immune systems – might be a good one. The image that suddenly occurred to me was of the sustainable development community having been placed in quarantine. You can become well-liked by propagating the notion, you can even set up consultancies delivering a more than decent income. And, unlike with so much direct progressive political activism, you are much less likely to feel you are left just talking to the wall. But you are rendered politically harmless to the powers that be, which is one important reason why sustainable development is quite popular.
     An old friend, once a fellow correspondent in East Asia, whom I had not seen for fifteen years, correctly identified the unseen political factor as “the elephant in the room”, or rather “in the tent”, since the plenary sessions were held in a huge circus tent (where, during the heatwave in Sweden at the end of last month, such an animal would have felt much at home). Connect problems with political reality, and they create discord. From a dozen or so subsequent conversations I found that we were not the only ones who had noticed the lack of an articulate political dimension to the proceedings.
    As could be expected, this was particularly noticeable in the sessions devoted to the international financial crisis. That situation was examined for the further damage it could do to countries with developmental problems, but by my knowledge no sustained effort was undertaken to get down to the power relations that made possible the relations and transactions that lie at the root of the crisis. Sometimes I heard some disturbed voices, from Latin America, Africa and, indeed, from the Netherlands, inching in such a direction, but these were lost in the general potpourri of opinion.
     Sustainability is not a useful political concept. But, worse than that, it has in the broad circles represented at Tallberg taken the place of the notion ‘the public good’, and is confused with it.
     Listening to how the assorted troubles connected to the crisis are framed you would never have guessed that a great transformation is taking place in the relationship between financial corporations, supposedly existing in a ‘private sector’, and governments using tax money to keep them going in such a way that they can consolidate their positions and continue with the ‘financialization’ of economies in which the recognition of such a thing as the ‘public good’ has virtually disappeared. This variant of what is still generally referred to as ‘capitalism’ has brought about the biggest transfer of wealth in living memory from the lowest and lower middle class income levels to the richest top level. All this, and the bailouts that made further obscene bonuses for the culprits possible, have triggered much obvious public anger. But this apparently cannot be converted into political action, as the instruments invented for such a purpose have stopped functioning. Established journalism no longer delivers countervailing power. Political parties that used to represent the lower income classes have long betrayed their constituencies by embracing fashionable neoliberal practices. The elections for the European Parliament (no great shakes, but they are an indicator) saw losses for the traditional ‘left’, and gains for the false populism – anti-immigration and so on – of demagogues who know how to tap into massive public discontent. And all the while undesirable political trends that bring economic misfortune may continue unchecked.
     Could the sustainable development community do anything about that? I think so. I suggested that those who fight poverty and ecological devastation should of course continue doing so, but also spend part of their time and energy laying bare the political roots of the problems for which they fight and prod existing political parties that were once progressive to restore the connection between those problems and their raison d’être. As I listened to people speak at Tallberg I heard many allusions to invisible opponents. It brought to mind those mediaeval maps with known territory in clear contours, but with terra incognita showing the words: “Here Be Dragons”. The least that the sustainable development people can do is to study those dragons.