Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog


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On David Harvey, capitalism and building a way out of the recession

There were many aspects of David Harvey’s lecture and our subsequent discussion of it that were intriguing, not least of which was the idea that in instances of economic recession, governments tend to try and build their way out of crisis; creating more homes so that people can start filling them with more things. The current Tory government in the UK appears to be attempting to do just that, with successive attacks on the planning system designed to speed up planning applications and allow more land to come under development. Most recently, the new planning minister for England has argued that there needs to be more building on greenfield land. This proclamation, in spite of broad agreement that there is a need for more homes, has been met by vehement opposition from a variety of quarters. The daily telegraph launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Land, environmental agencies responded strongly. But the issue is obviously complex. The rhetoric under which such a proposition is justified is the the NEED for housing. Unquestioned. Tragedies like people having to live with their parents, or not buying their first house of flat until they in their thirties are given as examples of the absolute crisis we are in in terms of housing shortages. Having had to personally come to terms with this myself I think gives me position to say that a great deal of the tragedy here is fabricated and imposed by a societal structure that presents such things as tragedy. Of course, I understand why some people would not want to live with their family members, although it’s worth noting that in many cultures this is the norm. And I understand as well that the way most houses are constructed does not make them particularly conducive to sharing, although millions of students seem to cope.

In any case, the tragic housing shortage MUST be handled, but is building on greenfield land really necessary? People argue that there are empty homes (true) and that these should be made available first (agreed) and that there are brownfield sites (that have already been developed in some way or are simply within urban areas and not officially parks or green spaces) and that these should be developed first (yes but also arguable  given that not all land classed as brownfield is already covered in tarmac or should be… green spaces in cities are important!). But assuming these things have already been prioritized, which they have for some time now, should development be allowed in the countryside? Well, considering that I’ve been looking at low impact development in the open countryside, and seeing how the planning system is so adamantly against this because it is development in the countryside, frankly I’m inclined to say that yes, the idea that the countryside should be devoid of development precludes the possibility of a proliferation of small scale land-based enterprises and their associated dwellings, and this needs to be changed. So in principle, I have to agree. Preventing people from building in the countryside, whether its a house for the children of a farmer on the family farm (currently not allowed unless it can be proven that all new adults living on site would be engaged full time in the farming business), or low impact homes for low impact lifestyles seems perverse. Yet, the planning system seems to be, if anything, much more strongly resistant to such small-scale affairs, whose impact is likely to be very small on the countryside than it is to allowing very large-scale developments. The large-scale developments are seen as meeting the housing need. Suddenly the fact that they will have a massive impact on the countryside doesn’t matter, whereas it still matters a great deal for individual dwellings and small scale developments.

Do we need developments of 2-3000 uniform buildings developed by a giant development corporation on land that could be used productively for agriculture? It’s pretty hard to justify that while resisting so hard much smaller and more sensitive developments.

The above-mentioned planning minister, Nick Boles, has also said that new buildings should be beautiful and that many new developments were, quote ‘pig ugly’ and that this resulted in people feeling more vehemently opposed to new developments. Once again, I have to agree. However, though we may both think that developments of the kind that Boles is essentially promoting, those (mass) produced monstrosities emerging from giant development corporations whose only motivations are financial are ugly, Boles doesn’t make the connection between the ugliness and the means of production. For me, the fact that such companies are primarily profit-motivated and that their profits rely on economies of scale, that is, they buy materials (and designs) in bulk to save on costs, means that whatever lip service government ministers may give to quality design, ultimately the products will be largely cookie-cutter, uniform developments of 2-3000 houses (practically whole towns – or rather suburbs since the jobs and many services that would allow these places to resemble towns are missing). Ultimately, soulless, uniform, poorly thought out buildings and settlements, which people will still buy, because they don’t have much choice. Because the fact that giant corporations can build on such massive scales means they can undercut the prices of other homes quite dramatically. The fact that the government will also bend over backwards to let them develop, on greenfield land or anywhere else, also means they have an advantage with which other, small groups and individuals will be hard pressed to compete with.

As Harvey points out, such developments will be funded by the same financiers who will lately offer the mortgage loans to people to encourage them to buy all these new builds. Meanwhile, the government holds a vested interest in also feeding this debt-machine, in running the capitalist model of ‘wealth creation’ or ‘growth’, which could also be called ‘debt creation’ and ‘social control’.

At the same time as these 2-3000 house developments are being built, generally with little thought of incorporating environmentally-friendly or socially progressive design elements (other than in rare cases or where forced by government policies on sustainable homes and affordable housing), individuals wishing to create low-impact settlements in the countryside will continue to struggle against a system that says ‘no development in the open countryside’ and places increasingly more and more restrictive conditions on any such development.

This is because the concern is not really with ensuring that people are housed, that they are productive and happy, that the environment is not damaged unduly… the concern is with churning money, with creating ‘growth’. The system is geared towards getting those developers to take out huge loans, build thousands of houses, and then towards getting thousands of people to take out more loans in order to buy them; People who will no doubt have to commute to their jobs in the nearest city in order to be able to afford the mortgages on their new, and perhaps larger than necessary, homes. The whole system is justified under the auspices that more houses are needed, and no one really questions, at a systemic level, the ethics and repercussions of the way this tends to be done.

And it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. If the government were really interested in people having good quality, suitably sited, environmentally-friendly buildings, there are many ways it could go about this. For one thing, making land-banking illegal would level the playing field immediately between the giant development corporations and much smaller groups and organizations. Relaxing the planning policies on rural enterprise dwellings and allowing some new building around existing buildings in the countryside would also be a step in the right direction. This would help to meet the needs for housing, keep young people in rural areas, and even promote a diversification of economic development in rural areas, something that is at present stunted by the fact that the only people who can afford homes in the countryside are retirees or people who work elsewhere and use the country houses as holiday homes, thereby contributing very little to the local economy.

All these issues are often lamented in the field of planning both academically and in practice, and yet there is little recognition of quite how significant economics, and particularly the capitalist neoliberal system are in producing these effects. The Marxist critique offered by David Harvey gives much clarity to the serious structural and systemic conditions that bring such things about and are the real barriers to ‘sustainable development’ in any real sense. The idea that the planning system could create more socially just and environmentally sensitive settlement patterns and ways of living seems something of a fantasy in light of the powerful forces of the capitalist machine. Still, Harvey enables us to understand these contemporary issues and perhaps at least helps to pave an inroad to considering what to do about them.


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Post secularism

Another idea for a listening (love them) next semester is Paul Cloke’s lecture:

Postsecular Stirrings? Geographies of hope in amongst neoliberalism
http://www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/research/centres/citycentre/events/index.html

I’d be instrested to explore the resonances – and any disonances – with Miacheal Sandel’s notion of a new politics of the common good: ‘Why should we not bring our moral and religeous convictiosn to bear in public discourse about justice and rights?’ See also

Habermas, Jürgen. “Secularism’s Crisis of Faith: Notes on Post-Secular Society”. New perspectives quarterly. vol. 25 (2008) p. 17-29.


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(one?) i-democracy and the pirate party…

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton (!),  has written: The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy (Biteback Publishing) [you can hear him talk about it, along with an interesting contrasting of Germany consensus politics with the adversarial mode favoured by the UK, USA etc on i-player, Start The Week, Radion4). A while ago, I read a fascinating science fiction novel New Model Army by Adam Roberts which featured an army run by wiki consensus that outmanouvered conventional forces. Examples like the Pirate Party (in Germany) suggest that i-democracy isn’t easy or unproblematic, though. We could read the manifesto of the UK Pirate Party to get into the topic of i-democracy next ‘semester’ – or may there are better readings people can suggest?


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Merrifield and Harvey discussion, 22 November

The group had a fascinating discussion in the quintessentially “rurban” setting of Aberystwyth Arts Centre bar on Thursday night about rebel cities and urban revolutions. We covered Marxism and post-Marxism, Kafka, Rushdie, the nature of power, surburbia mortgages and discipline, professionalism and living alternatively. As well as a lot else. Which made for a busy evening.

I found the discussion of Harvey’s ‘urban psychology’ and the mindset of living in an urban setting particularly interesting – and those who have a rural mindset in a hyper-urban environment and vice versa. The power of Kafka’s fable about The Castle was also very strikingly used by Merrifield, I thought, and opens up a very important discussion about how we conceptualise power in modern society.

Coming away from the meeting, I found myself thinking (again) about the rural/urban space and geography of the university in all of this. As within, and yet also outside, the city; as the locus of revolution (in Nanterre in 1968 and occupy in 2010) but also as the ivory tower where we can discuss our theorists and texts in safe isolation from much that is at the grassroots rural, and concrete urban, in contemporary politics. And because I’ve been teaching about social movements and 1968 is on my mind, I’ll finish with this: Sous les pavés, la plage. (Under the paving stones, the beach.)


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From the Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain’s Coast on Film

This programme was sensational as historical/cultural geography. It’s on again on Wednesday, at 00.00 and/or is availabe on i-player http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nyz3p

‘Storyville: Made from over 100 years of BFI archive footage, From the Sea to the Land Beyond offers a poetic meditation on Britain’s unique coastline and the role it plays in our lives. With a soundtrack specially created by Brighton-based band British Sea Power, award-winning director Penny Woolcock’s film offers moving testimony to our relationship to the coast – during wartime, on our holidays and as a hive of activity during the industrial age.’


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Andy Merrifield, Ed Soja, Erik Swyngedouw and Maria Kaika debate…

Manchester University Cities group had organized the debate on Friday evening involving these big brains from around the world and focusing on a discussion of ‘whither urban studies?’ It was a heavily intellectual debate, with reference to many intense philosophers (and niggly discussions about what caused arguments between Marx and another philosopher or whether such-and-such a philosopher was a classic Marxist or not – discussions which you may gather from my tone I don’t find useful or enlightening in any way). However, one thing that emerged, at least in so many words, was the need to make urban studies (and other academic fields by implication), more political, more engaged, and more critical. On the flip side of this however was the lament that the academic world was constraining the possibility for that by forcing academics to struggle for grants which tied them down to trivial matters rather than big thoughts about society and its problems.

This was all very convincing. Yes, I thought, we should be making our work applicable, usable, and comprehensible to people outside academia. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in arguing over who is following Marx more dogmatically than who, and whether Spinoza had more valuable things to say than Hardt and Negri or Hannah Arendt. And to be perfectly honest, this doesn’t really help anything. I agree that we need to allow ourselves the space to think, deeply and extensively, about what is going on in the world, and to use whatever analytical and philosophical tools we can get our heads around in order to comprehend it, but should we feel that that is a job well done? That we need do nothing else in order to assure we make a difference? I asked Andy Merrifield, given what he had said once ‘to change space is to change life, to change life is to change space, architecture or revolution, neither can be avoided’, whether we should be aiming to shape and change space, or life, or both, and how? As Erik Swyngedouw was also standing there, I threw in the fact that with all this talk of bringing in the political, where is the action? Swyngedouw’s response was that acting without thinking is not helpful, that we need to think before jumping on whatever activist bandwagon comes along. A fair point, but then, as Merrifield pointed out, you can think yourself into complete inactivity, it’s possible to think too much. As for how to take it forward in action however, Merrifield responded that it was a question for me to answer.

With all those big brains in the room arguing for the return of the critical, political edge to theory, it is still no clearer how a person should or could take these ideas forward into life, and indeed whether there is a point to all this philosophical talk without thinking about how it could be applied to enact or encourage some kind of change. Yet, I suppose this is in fact a question (or set of questions) for us each to tackle on our own. How much do we need to think about things before acting? How should we act as a consequence of that thinking? Or should we act without feeling that our thinking about something is complete? Maybe the act of doing is a form of thinking as well. Maybe we learn more from the acting itself, than from reading all the Marx and Arendt and Spinoza and Zizek and Harvey that our brains can handle.

At the end of the day, as usual, there are always more questions than answers. Still, I feel enriched by all the thinking, and maybe the only honest answers will always be or at least lead to more questions.


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Rich man, poor man (sic)

‘Mary Beard on the long history of the rich looking down their noses at the poor.’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qng8 I really enjoyed this and will listen again. ‘A point of View’ is another treasure trove of  stimulating listenings. With the BBC under such attack from all quarters, maybe we could raise our collecive voice to commend them for all the good stuff they do!