Let the old folks die

Dan Patrick is the vice governor of Texas, USA. Texas, where you don’t throw your garbage out of the car window, where you don’t leave your house without your gun (but you’re requested to leave it in the car when entering the gas station shop), where the tomato ketchup on your hamburger is sufficient for your daily portion of vegetables, where the majority of the staff prefers some alphabetisation course above a monetary compensation when the local Walmart shuts down. Texas is great! When we did a home exchange almost twenty years ago, and we spent nearly a month in south Texas and around San Antonio, I experienced a culture shock as I never had known before.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a Republican, who will turn 70 next month and who agrees with Donald Trump’s hope to reopen the country by Easter. “As a senior citizen, my focus is on my grandchildren and your grandchildren and the entire next generation, that we have an America to leave them, » he said. “And on the path that we are on right now, if we close down America, that American dream is going to disappear very quickly.” On Fox News he had said before that the nation should go back to work, while suggesting that “grandparents » should sacrifice to keep the country out of economic turmoil. “My message is that let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” Consequently he wouldn’t mind sacrificing himself to COVID-19 “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves” for his children and six grandchildren. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Dan Patrick is not the only politician who thinks senior citizens should sacrifice themselves for a quick exit out of the corona lockdown. German minister of Health Jens Spahn (39) suggests that, in order for the economy to restart as soon as possible, one should request the elderly to stay confined at home for several more months. Why let them flood the hospitals to die from COVID-19, when you can lock them up in their houses to die there from old age?  In doing so, at least they contribute their share to the much-needed economic recovery.

One more. According to the newspaper’s website, Jeremy Warner is assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading business and economics commentators and a serial winner of awards. He caused some fuss when he stated in his weekly column that Spanish flu had had a “lasting impact on supply” because it killed off “primary bread-winners” by disproportionately affecting young people – while this is not the case now with the COVID-19 strain. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” (Not really smart thinking by this Warner, since the average reader age of The Daily Telegraph is 61.)

But now seriously. Of course one should start considering in earnest the question at which moment  and to which degree the social, economic, political and psychological damages caused by the lockdown exceed its health benefits. Soon or later that moment will come – inevitably. In media of all types various experts claim that the economy post corona should be and cannot be else than more ecological and equitable, more harmless and friendly, slower and cautious. It should be so, because the corona crisis has proved the final failure of neoliberalism in all its aspects, and it can be so, because the population has proven its social consciousness and its capability to solidarity through their voluntary confinement in order to protect the elderly from (fatal) infection. Hasn’t all this demonstrated that not the markets, but the in neoliberalism so much disdained state appears to be the only effective barrier against the SARS-CoV-2 contagion? And isn’t this a chance to build up a new, green capitalism that resolutely breaks with the ideology of New Public Management?

Well, about that solidarity, I don’t know. If people stay at home in large numbers, this might rather have to do with their fear of being infected themselves, than with a precaution of not infecting others. If someone else coughs, you better run. And the massive hoarding of toilet paper and food – just as well in bio-stores, where the young and ecologically aware do their shopping – is hardly an illustration of societal solidarity. “The rich have taken all they could and have left nothing for the poor”, I remember someone saying, standing in front of empty racks in a supermarket.

Concerning the imminent and inevitable end of neoliberalism, it might be revealing to look for a moment at Le Soir of 4/5 April. Some capital-friendly characters shine their light upon what should happen next – and preferably as soon as possible. Funds manager Etienne de Callataÿ says: “Public debt will be higher. There will be a return to budgetary discipline. I don’t see how one could opt for a general refinancing of public services. On the contrary, one will doubtlessly have to cut further. But the health sector will stay immune.” And the CEO of construction firm Besix explains: “I’m not in favour of further encouraging public services. Economic functioning will have to come back to normal. In Belgium, we live beyond our means, with public instances that are way too much financed. Of course, some services which are managed by public authorities, such as health, transport or education, are clearly underfinanced in relation to the service they have to offer. But I think one should leave the services that have to generate profit to the private sector. It does a better job there.”

The end of neoliberalism? No, the core of neoliberalism: the profits for the private, the costs for the public sector. Now who do you think governments will listen to, the mainstream media and their economic specialists or citizens who envisage a more social and ecological way of living? The same governments that now hail as daily heroes the nurses and doctors, the truckers and garbage collectors, the shop assistants and the people at the food distribution – the same people and services they have impoverished and undermined by their year-long politics of austerity and privatisation? I think you will need to do more than just trust that something like a Green New Deal might rise up spontaneously out of the debris of the pandemic, and that this ‘other capitalism’ will contribute to a just and sustainable society.

Radicale subsidiariteit (2020)

Op grote schaal zijn tegenwoordig de politieke, economische en morele verwoestingen zichtbaar, die het neoliberalisme al sinds decennia teweegbrengt. Daarmee is er echter vernieuwde aandacht gegroeid voor het belang van de commons, les biens communs, beni communi, oftewel de gemeenschapsgoederen of het gemeengoed. En tegelijk zijn er ook nieuwe invullingen en benaderingen ontstaan van oude politieke theorieën als anarchisme of communisme.

Begin 2012 verschenen in druk twee bijdragen van me die op die vernieuwde belangstelling ingaan. Een ervan verscheen in het politiek-wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Res publica, in een themanummer over subsidiariteit. Dat stuk heb ik nu heel licht geredigeerd naar de vorm en met het oog op de begrijpelijkheid anno 2020; inhoudelijk is de tekst bijna tien jaar oud.

Voorafgaand een kort fragment uit de inleiding tot het themagedeelte:

“Graag willen we ten slotte de aandacht vestigen op het essay van de hand van Durieux over ‘radicale subsidiariteit’. Hoewel ook de wetenschappelijke artikelen aandacht hebben voor de ruimere context waarbinnen hun analyses gelden, wordt in dit essay een veel abstracter perspectief aangenomen. De auteur plaatst subsidiariteit in het kader van het wereldwijde neoliberalisme. Hij exploreert de mogelijkheden van radicale subsidiariteit als subversieve idee en organisatievorm, maar waarschuwt tegelijk voor de mogelijke recuperatie van dit principe door de dominante krachten van het Empire. In de goede traditie van het essay legt Durieux dwarsverbanden tussen soms erg verschillende politiek-filosofische tradities en tussen de abstracte politieke theorie en de concrete politieke praktijk, zoals die zich bijvoorbeeld voordoet in een dorp op de grens van de Belgische provincies Luik en Luxemburg.” (Ferdi De Ville en Jan Loisen, ‘Inleiding : Subsidiariteit in de EU en verder’, 35-36)

Uit de bewerkte tekst Radicale subsidiariteit (2020):

“… En toch lijken zich, wanneer het gaat om het bevorderen van het maatschappelijk goed, steeds meer initiatieven te ontplooien van onderuit, door betrokken burgers zelf, buiten de overheid en de markt. Ondersteund door zowat de hele politieke filosofie van de moderne tijd, is er wereldwijd een systeem gegroeid waarin alles maatschappelijks ofwel valt onder het exclusieve eigendomsrecht van het individu, ofwel onder dat van de soevereine staat. Langzaam is tussen het particulier bezit en de overheid een soort zero sum verhouding ontstaan, waarbij geen ruimte overblijft voor dat wat van iedereen is, omdat het van niemand is. Lucht, water, onderwijs, cultuur, veiligheid, ruimte, creativiteit … zijn zoveel als mogelijk tot economische waren gemaakt, en vervolgens, afhankelijk van de verwachte rendabiliteit, verdeeld tussen particuliere eigenaren en de overheid.  Maar schone lucht en water, onderwijs en cultuur, pleinen en bossen, mobiliteit, kennis of energie zijn gemeenschapsgoederen of -waarden, commons of biens communs, die belangrijk zijn voor iedereen in een samenleving. Zij zijn common goods omdat zij evident ter beschikking moeten staan van alle mensen, en hun waarde alleen maar kan uitgedrukt worden in termen van het gemis dat ontstaat wanneer zij niet meer ter beschikking staan.

Interessant daarbij is nu dat door de processen van globalisering en schaalvergroting van na de Tweede Wereldoorlog zowel de gemeenschapsgoederen zelf, als de soevereine overheden en de particuliere eigenaars de oude grenzen van de staatssoevereiniteit hebben overschreden. De private eigenaars zijn consortia, holdings en multinationals geworden, die wereldwijd opereren, en die amper nog aanspreekbaar zijn op hun maatschappelijke verantwoordelijkheid. En de manier waarop overheden – die verondersteld worden het algemeen belang te dienen –  kunnen beschikken over de maatschappelijke goederen die niet ‘vermarkt’ zijn wordt steeds meer bepaald door in wezen ondemocratische instellingen als de Europese Commissie, de Wereldbank, het IMF of de WHO. Maar ook de beni communi zijn grensoverschrijdend geworden: een schoon milieu, energiezekerheid, onderwijs, cultuur en mobiliteit zijn geen maatschappelijke goederen waarvan de relevantie en het belang bepaald worden door staatsgrenzen.

Dus openen zich nu nieuwe perspectieven voor het beheer van die maatschappelijke goederen. …”

En hier het volledige essay radicale subsidiariteit (2020)



1000 meters

Here’s another ‘green’ one who would like to flood (‘volplempen’) the earth with wind turbines (see also Over duurzaamheid en actie). Boris Palmer is a member of the German party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and Oberbürgermeister of the city of Tübingen in Baden-Württemberg. Unlike many other green politicians, this one openly declares that his main aim nowadays is the saving of the wind industry. What’s at stake?

The German (federal) government would like to impose a distance of at least 1000 meters between wind turbines and residential areas. This distance should be maintained quite rigidly. In the taz Palmer declares that a spacing of a thousand meters would eliminate about half of the possible sites for wind generators. Due to the widespread resistance of the population against the siting of any more wind energy production zones, construction firms are said to have lost up to 75% of building orders, compared to two years ago. So Palmer’s glad that at least in one other German Land the government is aware of the “drama” that the wind industry “is very short of an exit”. To really save this industry however, awareness is not enough, immediate drastic action is required, he says. Boris Palmer has a plan.

The federal government should provide new building orders for the wind generator companies to be able to bridge the actual dip in construction jobs. As long as there are no new and final decisions about new sites, these turbines should be stocked on the factory grounds. Then later, when and where the Grünen will rule, the implanting of the machines could start immediately. In the meantime, the Länder should create their own planning agencies to handle the “much too complicated procedures” for the approval of construction sites. These agencies should have the task of providing yearly a certain amount of appropriate locations – read: of circumventing or overruling local resistance and (judicial) procedures, a tactic very common indeed to many other countries where the population resists further degradation of their living environment. The Bundesverband Windenergie recently demanded the identification of two percent of the surface of each Bundesland for the construction of wind generator zones.

Boris Palmer is known as a green ‘realist’. This year he published a book, called Erst die Fakten, dann die Moral – Warum Politik mit der Wirklichkeit beginnen muss (‘First the facts, then morality – Why politics have to start from reality’), which is briefly mentioned in the Konkret issue of December 2019. There it reads that his focus on practical solutions for ‘reality’ inevitably leads to the acceptance of given situations and mental dispositions – not getting over them, but making them more tolerable. When it comes to fugitives, in 2017 he states that “we can’t help them all”, he has no problems with woods being cut down for industrial areas, with trees falling for wind generators, with monkeys being used in animal experiments, and neither with breathing fine dust and nitrogen oxide, since the economy and science need growth, that’s how they can function.

The interesting thing now is that Palmer seems to be vaguely aware of one of the paradoxes of the Energiewende that he so resolutely promotes within the premises of growth and progress – although he stops at thinking it through. In the beginning of the taz-interview he refers to the federal government subsidizing the buying of electric cars, “which will cause us to need much more electricity than we produce nowadays”. All right. But what if you aimed at reducing the number of cars, wouldn’t that help?  There’s a saying Endless growth is the logic of cancer cells. Tumours proliferate until they have killed the organism and in so doing destroyed themselves. The logic of capitalism is endless expansion and this logic is built upon credit. Growth must be financed through the expansion of money supply and the creation of new demand. But then again, to pay this credit further growth is necessary. An eternal treadmill. If you want  to solve the ‘problems of reality’ within the dictates of reality, you stay within the logic of capitalism. If you stay within he logic of capitalism, you stay within he logic of growth. If you stay within the logic of growth, you will forever be confronted with the problems of reality. And even the wind generator industry can’t stay a growing market forever – there are even physical limits to its possible expansion in populated regions.

O, is it that simple? No, of course not. Recently I read somewhere that Egypt is one of the most energy consuming countries of northern Africa. She would need an annual economic growth of 7% to be able to produce the energy required to provide basic things such as housing and food to her impoverished population – assuming of course that those in power would want to do that.  Seven percent growth in Egypt? Why not a global fair distribution of wealth instead? No, that would imply a transfer of wealth from the Western world to North Africa, and thus a relative slowing of wealth accumulation within western societies.

Do you need all this wealth accumulation around you? Take the example of the proliferation in Belgium of supermarkets. Right into the remotest corners of the kingdom, chains such as Aldi, Lidl, Carrefour, Albert Heyn, Colruyt, Delhaize, Alvo or Jumbo enter competition with one another with only one argument: cheap, cheaper, cheapest. Who profits from this growth? Not the staff – for them also the mantra is cheap, cheaper, cheapest: temporary or part-time contracts, ‘zero hour contracts’, students that are summoned via WhatsApp (the first one to react will have the assignment for the next day). Neither the producers and suppliers: everybody knows now about the human costs, here and in other continents, of this hunt for cheap food and household items. And yet, with the opening of a new Jumbo in the small municipality of Pelt for instance, the local retail market there will be saturated to more than two hundred percent. Those who stand to gain from this proliferation are not the consumers, but first of all the owners, super-rich families like the Schwarz (Lidl) and Albrecht (Aldi), or Colruyt and Delhaize.

How to get out of this? Dirk Bezemer in De Groene Amsterdammer talks about ‘repairing’ capitalism. But top-down policies, such as the Paris Climate Agreement or the European Green Deal won’t work as long as authorities serve the interests of banks, gas- and oil producers, industrial farming, etc. And the bottom-up repair through diminishing meat consumption, solar panels on the roof, investing in ‘green’ initiatives, local shopping … hits the limits of the habituation to comfort, consumption and seemingly endless possibilities.

OK, so let’s stay home tonight, and not take the car to drive to Brussels to go dining and attend a concert for which the artists came flying in from Canada (I first thought of Senegal or Bangladesh, but artists from countries like these don’t get a visa). We’ll spend the evening at home on the couch, munching locally grown carrots and drinking organic beer, and binge-watching whatever hyped series there is. German energy company Eon suggests that in 2018 video streaming has used worldwide as much electricity as Poland, Italy and Germany together: 200 billion kilowatt-hours. The assumption is somewhat dubious, due to a lack of hard figures, but certainly there is a so-called rebound-effect when it comes to digitalisation and IT-services. Electronic devices do need less and less energy  and so become more ecological. But at the same time, more and more people use these relatively cheap devices for increasingly more activities.

This all leads to a double paradox. Neoliberals who strive for continuous growth have exploited populations and governments to such a degree that these cannot guarantee growth any longer; and those who strive for an Energiewende throw themselves into alternatives that require growth and further destruction of living environments.