Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

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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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The Death of the Reader?

Oh dear, the reading group and this blog site seem to have died a death… And just when reading groups are getting a bit more attention as radical praxis. Is anyone interested in re-starting some form of reading/discussion group, maybe for next winter?

‘Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world.’ From ‘The Importance of the act of reading‘, Paulo Freire’

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Reading groups and radical research practice’

I’m sharing a link to this intervention because (a) I hope it’s interesting reading, (b) to thank a number of you for your input and feedback on previous drafts; (c) to acknowledge the ‘good stuff’ we did/do together as a reading group, and (d) most of all, in the hope that it encourages us to engage furher in some form of reading group activity in future.

‘Reading groups and radical research practice’ http://antipodefoundation.org/2015/02/12/reading-groups-as-radical-research-practice/

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After Neoliberalism? Soundings Kilburn Manifesto Conference


Saturday 21 February 2014, 9.30-4pm

Human Rights Action Centre, EC2A 3EA

Although the neoliberal economic settlement is unravelling, its political underpinning remains largely unchallenged. The analyses in our manifesto call into question the foundational assumptions of the neoliberal order, and argue for radical alternatives that are capable of challenging the system as a whole.

To celebrate the completion of After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, Soundings Journal is organising a one day conference to discuss and develop the ideas outlined in the Manifesto, and the seminars that accompanied each installment.

The day will combine plenary discussions with smaller breakout sessions to build on the themes of the Manifesto, and to debate ways forward.

We welcome participants from a variety of backgrounds, including academics, students, activists, journalists and commentators.


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A life-history of the reading group

Pluralising Transition

In 2008, the rise of the Transition Towns movement sparked an Aberystwyth initiative (Mason and Whitehead, 2012). One of the working groups was a reading group, initially to discuss Transition movement literature. Initially, the group met out-of-hours in a local organic restaurant, the Treehouse, which functioned as a ‘green space’ (c.f. Horton, 2006). In 2009 our first ‘out-reading’ was a critique of the politics of the Transition movement, (Trapese Collective, 2008). Thence, the group began more radical reading, memorably Holloway’s Twelve Theses on Changing the World without taking Power. In 2010 and 2011, members of the group participated in occupations and teach-ins by students opposing hikes in tuition fees. By late 2011, however, the group was flagging with a scant handful of regulars. Inspired by Exeter Anarchist Reading Group, we called a meeting of all the local activists we could think of, resulting in an injection of some new life. ‘Marketing’ ourselves via university channels attracted academic staff, Masters and PhD students. One member set up a blog which extended our practices into writing and interaction with authors whose work we read (https://abertransitionreadinggroup.wordpress.com/). Arguably, the group became academic-heavy/activist-lite, though any distinction is vexed (c.f. Askins, 2013). To signal the extension of our focus beyond energy transition to any form of change, we added ‘s’ to Transition in the group’s name. For me, this signified a shift from the totalising ideology of the Transition movement to a more pluralistic approach to community politics and knowledge.

It would be too lengthy to list everything we have read, but a poll of regulars reveals some favourites. We sustained an engagement with Albert’s Parecon, largely ignored by academia. Unsurprisingly given the group’s preponderance of human geographers, David Harvey and Andy Merrifield have proved popular, while Simon Springer’s Why a radical geography must be anarchist (2014) was a favourite. The Kilburn Manifesto (2013) stimulated an exchange with one author, Stuart Hall, now sadly deceased. We have read about the degrowth, makers, Low Impact Development, and climate justice movements, but oddly not Occupy. Listening to pod-casts and watching films, we do not confine ourselves to written texts. Future activities mooted include reading fiction, discussing music, art and poetry, attending performances and exhibitions, and inviting speakers.

In 2014 the reading group is the only collective legacy of Aberystwyth’s Transition initiative. Evening meetings are in cafe-bars outside the university. Group identity remains defined by municipal transition: we are concerned with social change, our own lives, the place where we live and its relations with a wider world. As with other local activisms, our radical ambition is constrained by a lack of critical mass in a small rural town with a conservative university, neither offering significant resistance to processes of neoliberal globalisation. As a new year looms, the group seems to be entering a new phase, coalescing around more conventional academic format and content.