Friday, 18 November 2011

Greening the Economy: Building the Skills Base for a Sustainable Transition

After a great deal of re-thinking the growth trajectory of the South African economy, the government announced its intention to significantly green the developmental state, mainly through interventions in the energy sector. Yet the meaning of 'greening' must be established before any reasonably coherent discussion can be held on the subject, for it means different things to different people. Some, for example, tend to think of 'greening' as establishing 'garden cities', implementing nature conservation programmes, parks, water-bodies and the like.

Yet this is a limited view of 'greening'. In its more comprehensive interpretation, 'greening' refers to achieving sustainability through decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts and resource exploitation, and broadening interventions to achieve the mutual sustainability of ecological, economic and social systems. A more subtle factor is also critical to understand about greening. It is that in an era of increasing and concentrated demand, resource scarcity is becoming a major limiting factor to growth. Therefore, developing the skills, innovation base and regulatory frameworks to be competitive in the next major global technological wave will determine the relative competitiveness of national economies as we migrate further into the new century.

Figuring out how to ensure growth (note - not just economic growth), while decoupling growth from environmental impacts and resource exploitation constitutes the 'business' of establishing policy, incentives and the institutional capacity to deliver on the implementation of green infrastructures, technology and innovation management, building awareness, improving skills and capabilities, and so forth. South Africa's dependence on cheap, coal-based energy, has resulted in it falling behind it's competitors in green and renewable energy sector developments. We have not built the skills or innovation base to cope with the ever increasing resource scarcity/price increase challenges that have assailed the 21st Century.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of greening will involve establishing the skills base that is necessary to sustain green developmental initiatives into the long term, and maintain competitiveness. This is where South Africa will need a comprehensive plan - one that builds skills and capabilities at the middle and implementation levels of our institutions. Government departments, industry sectors, higher institutions, etc. all need to seriously rethink their human competence development programmes if we are to achieve a successful transition to more sustainable infrastructures, technologies, production processes and everyday behaviours. 

Another critical aspect will be engaging closely with trade unions and industry and business sectors on the skills development that is required to migrate the labour market from their existing practices to new modes of operation. This can only be achieved through close cooperation with these players, and fortunately, COSATU is playing an active role in envisaging the migration towards a newer, more innovative and competitive South African economy, as evidenced by their participation in the "million climate jobs" campaign, a civil society initiative that goes beyond the 300 000 target of green job creation set out in the New Economic Growth Path for South Africa.

Ensuring adequate levels of participation when visioning sector level transitions is a crucial requirement. Ensuring that broad levels of agreement are achieved is essential, as without effective cooperation within and between sectors, sustainability at the whole system scale will not be achieved, despite the best efforts of policy-makers and regulators. It requires a plural, inclusive approach towards governance, and a programme that can adapt to new local challenges, technological trajectory changes, unpredictable changes in the global economy and climate, and so forth. Benevolent 'top-down' dictator-style government actions may work in China, but they will  not work in a free society where the rights of individuals and groups are guaranteed and protected, and in the heavily privatised South African context where the industry and manufacturing sectors have significant levels of autonomy.

In short, skills development, stimulating creativity and innovation and broader programmes of participation will be required to see this transition through. Remembering that reduced resource dependence, enhanced competitiveness and improved socio-economic conditions are the goals of the transition will ensure that it does not get sidetracked or end up as a set of piecemeal solutions that operate within silos and do not contribute to sustainability at the whole systems scale.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Occupy Protests: Being Leaderless Helps Reshape The Territory

Perhaps the most striking characteristics of the protests that have emerged over the past year and half, whether they have originated from the Arab Spring in the middle east, or in the cities of the developed world, is that they are mostly leaderless, and that their various manifestations have proven to be devoid of a single governing ideology. Instead, they have become forums for participation, where a wide variety of views and ideological orientations can find a voice. As one OWS protester put it, it is not so much an ideological movement as much as it is a space for participation.

In the Arab Spring, a necessary debate has emerged around how to reconcile Islamic governance with democratic principles, and the elections in Tunisia reflect this. There is also an emerging debate on the role of women in Islamic democracy. These are both welcome developments that attest to the power that the Arab Spring has brought to the general discourse on politics and political freedom in the middle east, and the role of society and leaders within it. Islamic extremism has been put under the microscope and questions that were once thought unthinkable have now entered the mainstream. It's not perfect, but it's a beginning.

In developed countries where 'mature' democracies have been in place for the better part of the last forty years, the occupy and anti-austerity protest movements have also re-opened the space for debate around the fundamentals of democracy. In the last 20 years, 'talk left, walk right' political strategies have emerged in the wake of the weakening of the left through the era of neoliberal 'free' market economics. At the same time, conservative ultra-right movements such as the 'tea-party' increasingly appropriate the language of the old left. In short, developed countries have become plagued by bipolar democracies where it has become increasingly meaningless whether a democrat/labour or republican/conservative government is voted into power, because they ultimately end up thinking and acting in the same way.

Whether one chooses right or left, is an increasingly meaningless exercise in this muddled new territory of democracy, and it is obvious that the public responded with a profound apathy during the boom times. Now that the bubbles have burst, their voices are being raised. Those who were once content to sit in the middle and watch either side throw barbs at each other have entered the fray. They are not explicitly ideological, but they all want change. They may not all have the same ideas of how to make changes, but they know what needs changing. Simply put, it is unfairness at work in the heart of democracy. It is the violation of the egalitarian principle that lies at the heart of democracy itself. Inequality has always had strong appeal as a mobilising factor for those on the lower rungs of the divide, and when their ranks grow they become dangerous. It's as simple as that. And it's not perfect, but it is a beginning.  

It is a beginning because these leaderless mass movements have opened up the space for participation, and participation is the first step towards greater dialogue and exchange that can shape a new discourse. The 'leaderlessness' of these movements is precisely what makes them a potent force for change. That is, they are not already wrapped up in ideological clothing that predetermines how the debates and conversations may unfold. Instead, their leaderlessness and lack of monolithic ideological posturing means that the opportunity now exists to host a social dialogue on what core principles are needed to navigate the territory of the new century, and what kind of changes might be necessary to realise these principles.  

Perhaps the most significant demonstration that the protesters have given the world, is that it is still possible to engage governments and institutions through direct protest action. Some may underestimate this, but for the past twenty years there has been a significant public reluctance to engage in direct protest action. This critically important regulating function of democracy gave way to a global wave of apathy, especially in the countries of the developed world. The triumphal march of a victorious capitalism brought with it a sense that capitalism itself was timeless, and the reigns that had previously kept markets in check were loosened, as markets themselves were seen as the 'self-regulating' magic-makers of prosperity. The results of this victory are now plain to see, and the hopes that things would 'self-correct' after the collapse are proving more distant than ever before.

We are now entering an era where new norms will be established. Business as usual may find a few more tricks and turns to keep itself alive, but the foundations of business as usual have been shaken. The longer the recession persists, the more it becomes a rallying cry to the middle and working classes who have been displaced from real power in the oligarchical functions of the neoliberal dream where there are 'one set of rules for us, and another set of rules for them'. The longer they remain leaderless in their protests, and refuse to be coopted into simplistic sets of agreements that hijack their momentum, the momentum will grow, ideas will flourish, and a new discourse and new normative orientations will be birthed.

Perhaps we are at a moment of the same significance as the modernists of the 20th century found themselves at, filled with the promise of a brave new world, yet unsure of exactly what it may end up looking like. Let's hope that this time we are able to avoid falling into the trap of conflict, and that our enhanced ability to share ideas, conduct campaigns and achieve genuine political action in different places of the world can help us overcome the very real challenges we face. Should these leaderless protests become captured by populists who skillfully capture the 'vacuum' instead of celebrating the potential of the 'vacuum', then the risk of fragmentation and conflict will become more significant and perhaps overwhelm the momentum that, although currently loosely bound, may yet still yield a new set of ideas, visions and norms that effect change in ways that are as yet unforeseeable.

Again, true freedom is the ability to bring about fundamental change, so we might regard the 'leaderless vacuum' as a free space in which the birth of the new is possible. Straight-jacketing this space into a re-run of old positions and ideologies will prove to be its undoing. A parody of the ideological conflicts of the 20th century is hardly likely to achieve anything more than it has already, and in truth, these positions have already compromised themselves to each other, and to their own foundations, and have drifted far away from their original foundations.

And we do need the new to flourish, now more than ever. The Euro hangs on a thread, the dollar would be a worthless currency without China's strong backing. The 'free' market has failed because the most predictable of human behaviours, greed and the propensity to desire wealth without work, triumphed over the imaginary virtues of self-interest. We are now in trouble, and we have to work together to dig ourselves out of the mess we're in. An old supervisor, who oversaw me through probably the most difficult career transition I've ever attempted once gave me some advice that has seen me through many do it?" from me, he replied, "I find that the most difficult thing is keeping the space open long enough for something to emerge".

In research, as in life, you often have no idea what you are going to discover or develop when a project begins, all you have is a bunch of ideas and speculations about how to move forward. Yet if you keep the space open long enough, and stay faithful to the spirit of the project, something always emerges that makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the same kind of philosophical openness is required now, and hopefully we will find the strength to move into the unknown so that we can discover something better than what we have now, because more of the same isn't going to make the cut, and is more likely to sink the ship than to keep it afloat. Tossing the blame from one side to the next isn't going to solve anything, and we have to face up to the deep flaws that exist on both sides of the political divide, and soon.     

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Obstacles to a Third Way: Ideology Before Analysis!

When ideology precedes analysis, it in effect serves to negates analysis. Analysis then becomes constrained by the boa constrictor of absolutism and ideological canonism, and a hierarchy is imposed upon analysis that locks it into a tautological double-bind or catch-22. To put it simply, if you put the cart before the horse you shouldn't be surprised that you end up in the same place all the time. 

The ‘horse’ of analysis becomes restricted to a few steps forward and a few steps backward. The ‘cart’ of ideology or absolute theoretical hegemony becomes the pivotal axis and tether that governs the direction and extent to which analysis can go. The horse, confused, pulls backward and side to side, finding relief only when it remains in one place. Every direction is fraught with tension, so the only option is to remain directionless. In this way, analysis always returns to the same place, because ideology has conditioned it to be bereft of agency, its inquisitiveness and imagination put asunder for a 'greater' purpose.

Theoretical frameworks, if they are to remain honest - i.e. not necessarily truthful in the sense that they make the claim to absolute truth but honest in their approach to the subject matter under analysis - should be deducted, or even abducted, but never inducted without great care. That is, induction from theoretical frameworks in complex, real world contexts usually constitutes a complex fabrication. It is fabrication because it pretends to derive that which it is actually premised on.

Real world contexts are complex, and their behaviours cannot be inducted from a model, theoretical framework or pure methodology. Scientific induction is only credible in systems that are simple, or at the most complicated. Inducted principles can be derived from systems that are generally simple enough to be tested by hypotheses and repeated. If the system is not dynamically changing its fundamental conditions and constraints on a timescale that negates induction, then induction is possible.

In other words, induction only works for simple, well constrained systems that progress in a linear fashion where change is incremental and predictable. As soon as the system begins to progress in non-linear jumps and bounds, and in different directions, induction becomes less tenuous as a methodological foundation. Social, political and economic systems, being fundamentally social in their conception, are complex, reflexive systems. They are in the domain of the deductive and abductive. Understanding has to follow the unfolding behaviour of the system. By definition, it cannot precede it, except through what can only be termed 'oracular' insight.

And ideology precedes analysis regularly in a global society that constantly looks backwards to its historical foundations to answer questions about how to face the future. Ideology, to be sure, is by and large the starting point of many debates, analyses and opinions that are generated over the question of what socio-political and economic systems are responsible for the global crisis we have entered into. And it is not simply a crisis of economic systems. It is a crisis of how to move forward, and to generate new ideas about how the global polity and socio-economy can be best positioned in relation to each other. As articulated by Zizek, "the field is open" and the marriage between capitalism and democracy has ended, yet we are struggling to find a new way forward.

Our imaginations and our ability to inquisit have indeed become conditioned by ideology. Instead of maintaining a critical perspective on our prevailing ideologies, we lapse into analyses that apriori draw upon the ideological foundations that we prefer. We therefore become 'stuck' in self-reinforcing, circular patterns of analyses that take us nowhere. More often than not, they simply become analyses that search for where to place the blame - as if any of the systems that constitute the current global order can be regarded as entirely blameless in the first place. 

Yet there is more to this kind of analyses. They are analyses that are explicitly oriented around an ideological foundation, and implicitly constructed in reaction to the opposing ideological foundation (i.e. its 'metaphysical' opposite). The analyses therefore ends up being a de-facto debate between polar opposite positions. Indeed, this is the very critique that deconstruction offers of the general methodology by which philosophy itself is constructed. This raises the question of how to embrace analyses that does not fall at either side, but that begins 'in the middle' so to speak. This is not a trivial observation, for arguments that proceed from the poles are the fundamental obstacle to generating what may be regarded as a 'third way'.

In other words, what kind of third way can be 'constructed' or 'formulated' (these terms are unfortunate, so they are used here with reservation) if we do not start from the edges or the poles, but start from the middle instead? Note, I do not mean to start from an ideological middle ground, but from a middle that makes observations of the poles, and remains acutely aware of them and how they influence us. There are two aspects that emerge from observations that are made in the middle that require closer inspection. Firstly, that there are fundamentally irresolvable 'undecideables' i.e. the decisions, phenomena or events that fall between metaphysical opposites, are fundamentally irresolvable, and cannot be avoided in political decision-making (Derrida). Secondly, that the polar opposites, when they approach the extremes of either end, begin to mirror each other, resulting in a different kind of obfuscation, where it becomes difficult to distinguish one polar opposite from another (Zizek).

The former observation is made by Derrida, in his careful identification of the 'undecideable' in political decision-making, where he concludes that any political decision that forgoes the 'ordeal of the undecideable' is not in reality a political decision but rather, becomes the mere 'unfolding of a calculable process'. That is, there will be fundamentally irresolvable, 'undecideable' factors that occupy the territory of the middle, otherwise referred to as the 'logic of the included middle' by Plato (Max-Neef, 2005). These irresolvables define where metaphysical opposites differ from each other, and resolving these undecideables requires more than theory. It requires learning,  participation, integration and negotiation i.e. strategies that engage directly with the contextual specificities that bring about undecideability, and which can possibly lead to the resolution of these undecideables under certain context-specific conditions. In this way, undecideables may end up being resolved in context (though not always), yet remain unresolvable at the broader theoretical level that is removed from the specificities of context.

The latter observation is made by Zizek, when he identifies how the right-wing conservative tea-party movement resurrects the rhetoric of the labour movements that existed 50 years ago in their conception of the tea-party identity as fighting for the rights of the ordinary worker against the irresponsibility of big government and big capital. The same is true of 'left wing' eco-movements that upon closer examination are mainly biocentric in their values, beliefs and norms. This biocentrism itself hails from the historical support for conservation biology efforts that saw predominantly indigenous peoples being herded off their own lands and into reservations, so that the 'pristine' natural environment could be maintained, devoid of human influence (hence biocentric). That is, eco-movements whose foundations are in fact profoundly anti-social, have staked a specious claim over the socialist territory of the left. Only in Latin America and India, have eco-movements become profoundly social in their approach, warranting a clear membership of the left.

Perhaps another dimension of analysis can be added to this; primarily that as those at the extremes of the poles increasingly embrace their ideologies with what can only be described as a messianic zeal, they begin to resemble a church or a cult (i.e. an institutionalised set of beliefs that are taken on faith), where the only distinguishing factor between a church and a cult is the size of the following. Where ideology becomes the unshakeable foundation from which analyses are made - instead of being regarded as a hypothetical framework - then it follows that the values, beliefs and norms that govern the analyses or debates are also unshakeable (if deftly hidden) preconditions that impose a hierarchy upon the analytical framework, which ceases to be interpretive or reflexive at this point. This unquestioning 'lock-in' to foundational values, beliefs and norms is not irrelevant. It is the main obstacle to going beyond a bipolar theoretical debate because dogma is followed by  rhetoric at best and sophism at worst.  Moreover, behaviours are founded upon values, beliefs and norms, so real-world changes in behaviour are obstructed at the same time i.e. the foundation for action is also subverted, or at the very least obscured.

The consequences of ideological fundamentalism are that we are unable to effectively bring about the necessary change changes in the way we think, that may ultimately result in changes in actions and behaviours that govern the global political, socio-economic and ecological 'condition'. And this 'condition', as a result, remains unchanged. To put it forcefully, the pro-free market and anti-free market ideologues have created their own respective sacred grounds that are too hallowed to question, and become external to analysis by being implicit in their interrogative frameworks. 

In a very genuine sense, debates of this ilk resemble a debate between parrots; more often than not they can only talk past one another as their 'vocabularies' are largely pre-fixed, and no real meaning is engendered in the interchange. They celebrate the undecideables between them as signifiers of their ideological purity. Yet at the same time these debates resemble a debate between sophists or conmen, as they appropriate the arguments and critiques of each other where it 'fits in' to their ideological frameworks, and speciously lay claim to them as their own. The latter, indicates that a postmodern relativism is speciously employed to subvert the claim that each hold to their own precious beliefs. That is, not only do they differ violently, they also attempt to appropriate the ideological territory of their opponents at the same time. It is truly a war, in which any and all tactics are considered fair.

And predictably, they despise any and all that occupy the middle. Indeed, in this they are not far away from the Christian God, who proclaims that only those that are passionate for God can be accommodated within the halls of the Church. The 'lukewarm' will be spat out. Those in the middle are not just spat out, they are spat on, literally and verbally. Yet it is not on the basis of analyses that they are spat upon. It is on the basis of concretized values, beliefs and norms that are taken for granted as foundational. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as the failure of both positions have demonstrated towards the end of the previous century. It is true that absolute objectivity is also an impossibility, but where the values, beliefs and norms that are subjectively held become implicit and unacknowledged - i.e. no awareness of them exists except in their virtue as absolute and non-negotiable preconditions - they become constrictive to the generation of any honest debate or analysis. They are therefore oblivious to their own strategic orientation, because it takes the foundations from which it proceeds as self-evident.

That is, the dishonesty is a kind of ignorance that prevails to the ultimate end, discrediting all and sundry around it that doesn't make the effort to fit itself into a particular framework or position. It is a narrow-mindedness that is holding us back in our quest for a new way that will rescue us from the conditions of polycrisis and global hegemony. Ideas and new frameworks that fall outside of the mainstream poles are largely ignored or despised as compromises and cast aside. Perhaps it is the hegemony on analyses and ideas that is proving the most difficult to break, while the hegemonies of power and wealth have found themselves floundering in the winds of change that the beginning of the 21st Century has brought with it.