Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

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I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately, what sparks them, and over what kind of duration they take place… Sometimes a change ushers in transition, like moving to a new place. For a while life is about finding your feet, forming new networks, figuring out how to do things… Then there is might be a period in which things are relatively stable. Yet, both states, the transition period brought on by change, and the relatively stable periods in between can contain the possibility of further transitions, brought about by intention, provoked perhaps by an idea, or inspired by another person, or a film/book/performance/something else.

As an example, over the past 6 months or so, I have been exploring a transitional state towards veganism. This was prompted by a number of discussions and reading about the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment (water pollution, biodiversity loss, soil compaction and erosion…), as well as animal welfare and other reasons. I could perhaps pinpoint the tipping point to meeting a very avid vegan, who was willing and able to engage in patient and respectful discussions about the ethics, pros and cons, different patterns of consumption, and to share information in response to my questions. But to say this was a tipping point is inaccurate on a number of levels. There are have been many points, such as meeting other (perfectly healthy I might add) vegans in the past, living in a pescetarian house in which food is largely vegetarian in any case, and nice vegan food made by friends or had at restaurants. The accumulation of all these things, and the continued availability nice food, nice ingredients, and the time to cook, mean that this is a feasible transition at this stage in my life.

Talking about transitioning to veganism makes it sound as though that is an isolated thing, but it’s actually a part of all kinds of personal transitions. On the environmental front, transitioning out of using disposable items like cups, plastic bags, plastic cutlery and straws is another. In neither case do I feel that I am anywhere near an endpoint where I can feel that I am now doing my level best on these scores. Sometimes a personal transition needs to be supported much more strongly by adjusted ‘choice architectures’ as the Nudge folk would say. I’ve had awkward conversations when buying a coffee at the train station and handing over my thermos mug. On more than one occasion the barista has made the coffee in a disposable cup and poured in into my mug, thereby defeating the purpose of the reusable mug. Even at places with a discount for bringing your own mug, most of the time baristas seem unaware of this and do not apply the discount. This is changing somewhat, a transition in the choice architectures… (The ethics of buying and drinking coffee is another thing, but I haven’t quite gone there yet).

The conclusion of all this is that transitions never happen in isolation, not in terms of the transition itself – which is supported by other personal circumstances, histories, and possibilities – nor in terms of being a personal, individual transition. Transitions take place over time, in a mesh of people (and in the broader structural conditions of economy and politics) and the rich contextual environments that we find ourselves in. Because of this, and in spite of the fact that the Aberystwyth Transitions Group is now dispersed and changed from the form it once had, it seems worth recognising that we are part of a mesh of support, thought, exploration and discovery, that can enable different transitions from the personal to all kinds of other scales…

With that in mind, it seemed a good time to think about resurrecting the Transitions blog, even though the reading group no longer meets. In discussion with Kelvin what we thought would be good is to use this space as an accumulation of things that we are posting elsewhere, on our personal or other project blogs. Interested parties can blog either directly on here, or copy and paste their writing from elsewhere to share, with a link back to where they originally posted it. In this way, we can continue having conversations about the things that matter to us, and support each other through all the transitions we’d like to experience.


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Ceredigion People’s Assembly

Dear anyone who is still even remotely interested in Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group, and specifically this online space. As seems to be the way, the focus of social movement activism as reflected in Aberystwyth has taken another turn. Clearly, the transition town movement has passed for the town (for the moment). Currently, Ceredigion People’s Assembly (CPA) is a key forum for civil society collectivity, focussing on opposition to the austerity. Within that forum, a reading group is being proposed. So, the purpose of this post is to flag up perhaps using this space to foster that group and give it an online dimension? And also to think about changing the name of the site – if not the url. Or is it easier/clearer to start again with a new blog site, perhaps using a different platform – such as weebly?

Here’s the detailed CPA proposal:

CPA Reading Group Proposal Introduction This is a proposal for inaugurating a reading group within the Assembly. It is loosely-structured around the theme of austerity and organized as a “show-andtell.” That is to say, it presents a collection of writings that I have found useful in understanding the present, but it does not require that they are actually read (there are a few exceptions). Instead, I’ve sourced, for the main part, audio and video recordings in which the authors present or outline their work and which might prompt you to read it if it engages your interest.

Session 1: Double movement, neoliberalism and post-democracy In this session, we’ll focus not on austerity but on the broader historical context in which it is imposed, in particular: the history of capitalism as a whole; the neoliberal order of capitalism; and the hollowing-out of democracy that has occurred in the neoliberal era. Polanyi (1944) is a seminal text in political economy, and his concept of a “double movement” which structures the history of capitalist development has informed a lot of scholarly discussion of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The following single-paragraph entry in Wikipedia adumbrates the basic idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_Movement Neoliberalism is a slippery term. In sober usage, it refers to three interrelated things: (1) an on-going tradition of political and economic thinking; (2) governmental practice which implements policy ideas emerging from this tradition; (3) and a period of time, from the 1970s to the present, during which such practice has come to be adopted by most governments across the globe. Mirowski (2013) is a good, albeit lengthy, introduction. To get a detailed flavour of the text pitched at a general audience, see this interview with Majority FM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsiT9P87J4g Whilst we are not (yet) living under a dictatorship, it’s clear that states such as the UK are no longer democracies in any fully meaningful sense. Crouch (2004) is the classical account of the social science term which attempts to capture this: post-democracy. Crouch (2016) retrospectively examines how the term has fared over the last decade, and it’s available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-923X.12210/full

Session 2: Fiscal/monetary policy and the consolidation state Austerity dramatically changes fiscal policy (how states seek to put to use spare capacity in the economy), and monetary policy (the setting of interest rates and the like). This session involves us in an attempt to grasp the basic principles of both in a sovereign currency context, and to specify austerity in more detailed policy terms. MMT (modern money theory), exemplified by Wray (2012), provides a very lucid account of the functioning of fiscal and monetary policy. See, for example, the following talk on sovereign currency by Wray: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i35uBVeNp6c In the talk, Wray portrays sovereign governments as relatively liberated from constraints such as tax revenue volumes and the demands of bond-holders. In the context of austerity, this might strike us as fanciful thinking. Streeck (2014) explains why, in particular through his characterization of the recent historical trajectory of western powers from welfare state, to debt state, and finally to consolidation state. For a briefer account, see Streeck (2011), which is available here: http://newleftreview.org/II/71/wolfgang-streeck-the-crises-of-democraticcapitalism Alternatively, see this talk at the LSE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5r9rqgPUVU

Session 3: Is austerity flawed policy or class struggle? So on to the issue of austerity itself. In this session, we’ll attempt to explore in greater depth our ambivalent attitude to it: our belief that what the government is doing is just plain dumb, and at the same time that the clever so-and-so’s are up to something. Blyth (2013) is an irate skewering of austerity as fiscal blundering, and a presentation of the book at the LSE is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iM2cnMhJZyg For Seymour (2014), however, austerity is a sophisticated political project (and ideological practice) whose fundamental aim is a re-ordering of class relations and the state. He briefly presents the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxsBRJRqYCk and at greater length in an interview with Novara Media here: https://soundcloud.com/novaramedia/against-austerity-in-conversation-withrichard-seymour

Session 4: Real utopias and transitions Hopefully we now have a firmer and more detailed grasp of austerity, and we can move on to thinking about opposing it and working towards a more sustainable and egalitarian future. We’ll begin by looking at some ideas put forward by Erik Olin Wright, an American sociologist who has dedicated his career to building an “emancipatory social science.” Wright (2010) proposes “real utopias” as a framework for the imagining of alternative futures we might wish to work towards, and also provides us with a four-term schema for discussing and thinking about ways of transitioning to those futures. He gives an outline of the book in an interview here: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/envisioning_r eal_utopias/ He talks specifically about transitions here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-KcHtYCtTs And you can find the Q & A for that session here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAZXGD3YO_Q

Session 5: Money as a site of struggle From Polanyi (1944) we’ve learnt that, in conjunctures such as our own, struggles are waged around the issues of labour (for example, precariousness in general or junior doctors in particular), land (fracking or the housing crisis), and money. The struggle around the issue of money might not be readily obvious because it has been so one-sided (banks have been bailed out, but families holding sub-prime mortgages have not). Ingham (2004) is a common point of reference in the contemporary discussion of money as a social institution, a crystallization of unequal relations of power, in which questions such as who controls and creates money, and on what terms, are raised and reflected upon. As a starting point, see Ingham (2008), chapter 4 (a photocopy will be provided). Although completely unreported by the media, struggles around money are being waged, and in this session we’ll try to look at three of these: the Brixton Pound; Positive Money; and the Just Money advocacy by Ann Pettifor (2014) and her colleagues at Prime Economics. Here are the relevant websites: • https://brixtonpound.org/http://positivemoney.org/http://www.primeeconomics.org/

Session 6: Labour as a site of struggle In this session we’ll focus on two labour issues: the “well-being agenda”, and automation. There is a wealth of statistical evidence—concerning rates of suicide, the incidence of stress-related disorders, and so on—that neoliberal societies are unhappy ones. To us it might be obvious that this has something to do with system-wide phenomena such as indebtedness or the stresses of precarious work, but what do governments and corporations think? Davies (2015) is an investigation of how they have come to the conclusion that this is a problem of individuals lacking “well-being.” He discusses his findings at a Verso-hosted event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M77Yxk7KJ6c Regarding automation, as things stand, precariousness looks set to spread as skilled work is increasingly automated. How should we respond? Srnicek and Williams (2015) argue that we should embrace automation and demand “fully automated luxury communism.” They put their case to Novara Media here: https://soundcloud.com/novaramedia/inventing-the-future

References: Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Crouch, C. 2004. Post-democracy. London: Polity Press. Crouch, C. 2016. “The march towards post-democracy, ten years on.” Political Quarterly 87: 71–75. Davies, W. 2015. The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. Ingham, G. 2004. The Nature of Money. London: Polity Press. Ingham, G. 2008. Capitalism. London: Polity Press. Mirowski, P. 2013. Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste. London: Verso. Pettifor, A. 2014. Just Money. Margate: Commonwealth Publishing. Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. Seymour, R. 2014. Against Austerity. London: Pluto Press. Srnicek, N. and A. Williams. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. London: Verso. Streeck, W. 2011. “The crises of democratic capitalism.” New Left Review 71: 5– 29. Streeck, W. 2014. Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso. Wray, L.R. 2012. Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomic Theory for Sovereign Monetary Systems. Basingstoke: Palgrave

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Grass Roots

This discussion picks up on many of the social movement themes the group has discussed in the past:

“The impact and influence of ‘people’s movements. How have grass movements have evolved and how are they responding to a world where there is increased democracy but increased challenge too. Looking at a shack dwellers movement in South Africa, rights organisations in Latin America and the Maker Movement in the United States, Bridget Kendall and guests explore how grass roots groups are working today and how they may develop in the future with S’bu Zikode, Professor Joe Foweraker and Gene Sherman.”


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Consolidating Power

Old favourite David Harvey:

“The groups that stamped the recent movements with their character, coming from the anarchist and autonomist traditions, are much more embedded in the politics of everyday life, much more than the traditional Marxists.”

Don’t worry, he slams anarchists too! (bogus horizontality!)


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Utopia and Alternative Voice

We’ve opened up this website for the use of the new reading group started within Alternative Voice (an Aberystwyth and district anti austerity group/network). That group is welcome to post notices of meetings and blog posts on readings and whatever… If we want to sign up new members, just email me their email addresses and/or I’ll make a regular Alternative Voice reading group attendee an administrator (kelvin.john.mason at gmail.com).

On utopia (as an antidote to austerity!), Kat’s reading group down Bristol way wanted utopian/dystopian readings, so here’s  some classics:

OUP collect Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (ed Susan Bruce, 2008)

Malcolm Milies’ Urban Utopia’s (Routledge, 2008) links literary and practical utopias, and urban theory, of course

Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975, 2004) may be environmentalism’s first stab at utopia – and is an interesting attempt at crossover fiction/environmetalism

Merlin Coverley’ Utopia (2010, Pocket Essentials) is a a review of the history, politics and liteature of the idea

Coverley covers some of the most influential literary utopia/dystopia fiction, including: 1984, Brave New World, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and Feminist novels Woman on the Edge of Time (Piercy, which I’m trying to reread at the moment) and the brilliant/chilling Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood)


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