Robin McAlpine – Resilience Economics

Probably the most potent and impressive European social movement is in Scotland being organised by a progressive Scottish think-tank “Common Weal”. Its response to Coronacrisis.

Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think tank Common Weal

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Early on in Britain’s lockdown I was on a video call with a lot of leading left activists across the UK. One of the questions someone asked summed up my fear regarding Europe. It was ‘but what should we do?’

I replied that, when you’re lying in your bath or cooking the tea and you find yourself thinking ‘I really hope that someone leads us out of this by…’ – that thing there, that thing you just wished someone would do. Do that yourself.

I keep saying over and over that those who want to see social progress have this habit of hoping someone will ‘do something’. We make our way to the beach, we light the bonfire and we wait to be rescued. It’s just that, by now, surely we’ve realised no-one is coming? Surely we’ve realised its up to us?

From the moment I realised how serious the pandemic was, I’ve been looking round Europe and round the world to see what leadership I can find for the kind of world I want. And to be honest, there just isn’t enough of it (at least so far).

I run a Scottish progressive think tank called Common Weal (which is an old Scots phrase which means both ‘for the wellbeing of all’ and ‘wealth shared in common’). Being on the verge of leaving the EU and with a right-wing government in the UK, it was abundantly clear that no-one was coming to save us. So we asked ourselves that question – what do I hope someone does?

I come from an activist family – my mother is a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner and there are few political campaigns I didn’t seem to be marching for from pretty well birth. It means I’ve seen the failure of forces of change and reform to grasp moments like this again and again.

The pattern is usually the same. First, some terrible social or economic failure happens. Second, we all get angry, write slogans and banners or (these days) hashtags. We protest. Third, we know that change is about more than protest so we set out our hopes, usually a set of high-level principles or aspirations, or a list of ‘what must change’.

Then we lose.

I went into a career in political strategy, ending up as the chief lobbyist for all of Scotland’s universities. I watched the anti-globalisation movement fail, the Make Poverty History movement fail. I was sick of it. In my professional life we won most of our battles, but in my activist life failure was pretty-well assumed.

To me it became increasingly obvious why. In my day job I would win because I would do, systematically, the things that lead you to win. In my activism we would do what we always do. By the 2008 financial crisis I had had enough. I decided it was time to apply that systematic approach to what I really cared about – social and economic change. Which is why I left to set up a think tank.

(Of course, 2008 followed precisely the usual pattern – crisis, then misery, then anger, then protest, then principles, then losing.)

I’m getting older; there won’t be all that many big fights left to go in my professional career. So we had a team discussion right at the start of the pandemic and promised that, this time, if we were going to lose it would not be because there is something we could have done that we didn’t.

We’ve been building up a campaign since lockdown, beginning with the slogan ‘Everything Must Change’ – but that is only to build up a powerful activist base. What we mainly did was try to make sure we do the things that win.

There are two main reasons we lose. The first is the perennial problem – activists always tell government what they don’t want (in some detail) and hint at what they do want (generally in vague terms). As a lobbyist I never did that. I knew PRECISELY what we wanted, what the exact goal was. And we asked for that specifically.

One of the most heart-felt pleas of the left in Britain is to ‘repeal the anti-trade union legislation’. I always say the same thing; ‘great, let’s do that then – which Act, which Section, which Clause?’. Too often I’m told ‘oh, just all of it’. And THAT’S how you lose.

But the other main reason we lose is because, while we often do a good job of ‘owning’ the story about why everything went wrong in a crisis, we almost always lose control of the story on ‘what next?’ We don’t have enough of the materials in place to take control of that story.

And there is one major thing missing – the economics. Once people have gone through the ‘something must change’ phase the lobbyists step back in and the first thing they do is take a grip of the economic narrative. Even though neoliberalism is almost always the cause of the crisis, they have the ‘science’ to show it is the only option (‘science’ which they have financed).

We often criticise this, but without an alternative theoretical framework for what to do next, can you really blame the politicians for believing there is only one way to do economics, or the public from shrugging and walking away, onto the next thing?

Neoliberalism was the crack-pot invention of a group of utterly fringe economists in the US in the 1970s. So fringe were they that no-one took them seriously. But when economies hit the stagflation crisis in the second half of the decade and the global Keynesian model looked to be in trouble, they stepped in with their alternative theory – leave markets alone and markets will do the rest all by themselves.

They captured Reagan in the US, Thatcher in the UK, and this version of economics went on to crush all before it.

Now that model faces an existential crisis even more fundamental than Keynesianism did in the 1970s. But what is the alternative framework? As a political strategist the first thing I would do is say ‘oh, is there a structural barrier to us winning this one? We’ll need to do something about that.”

Which is to say, if an alternative economics is missing, find it. That’s what we’ve done – and it’s not that hard, because there is a world of rich and powerful economic theory that lives beyond the frankly daft idea that free markets are basically perfect all by themselves.

And then of course when you’re telling the story, think hard about the story you’re telling. Us on the left are awfully good at asking for ‘niceness’ – which is partly why people often zone out when we start talking about ‘wellbeing’. Calling neoliberalism ‘evil’ is all well and good, but it let’s neoliberalism of the hook – what it is is really vulnerable. Every economic shock and it falls over.

Political linguistics is one of my particular areas of interest and, in a crisis, if we’re nice and they’re strong, people will tend towards the strength. So it works much better to frame things the other way round – they’re vulnerable, the alternative is resilience.

That is exactly what we’ve tried to do. We launched our alternative economic framework this week and we called it ‘Resilience Economics’ . When people feel vulnerable, we want to make them feel they can be not just hopeful but confident. That is a key component of the way people make decisions; desire isn’t enough without confidence.

This is only phase two of four. First we tried to set the ground with the Everything Must Change campaign. Then we set out the economic framework in Resilience Economics. Next week we will start to launch a detailed action plan of policies (properly costed and planned). After that we have a major multi-pronged campaign ready to go. We’re already getting serious political support.

But what does all this mean for Europe? Why should Europe take any interest in the efforts of an under-resourced think tank in a fairly small nation which is leaving the EU anyway (though against its will)?

I recount the above because I hope that there is some window for the forces of progress and reform across the continent to get their act together and seize this moment, to grab this opportunity for change. But I really believe it is only possible if some lessons are learned.

What I have described above is a sharp and fast response. What I am observing elsewhere is the traditional progressive instinct to form coalitions (and in the EU, very often people assume these coalitions must be multinational). It’s the ‘together we’re stronger’ belief.

And I completely understand it. I spent decades working on coalition and consensus because I believed it was the best response to the money and power the other side had. But I came to see this as a problem; because whether or not we’re stronger together, we’re most certainly slower.

Think of all the coalition-building after the 2008 financial crisis (isn’t it interesting that this crisis doesn’t have a name yet?). As activists worked on complex new forms of ‘being the change we want to see’, it became introverted and imprecise. Well before we had worked out what the change we want to see actually was, the other side had the game sown up.

I want to believe in multilateralism, in coalition – but I’m a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner. I support the Palestinians and want justice in the Middle East. I am passionate about the impacts of climate change. I marched (sceptically) to Make Poverty History. So you tell me – how is multilateralism working out for you? It has not delivered much for me.

The forces of progress have come to hate ‘nationalism’. I can’t tell you how wrong I think they are. For me, nationalism is just a way of saying ‘democracy’. It is the means of creating a meaningful and stable ‘demos’ of voters. It is like a ‘trade union for the people’, the only source of power they have with which to challenge corporate power.

That’s why the corporations hate nations states. That’s why they like secret supra-national ‘dispute resolution courts’ which entirely bypass any form of political accountability. Borders are not acts of hate, they are simply the place where laws change. I don’t want France to have to have the same school curriculum as Scotland, or for Germany to be forced to adopt our public holidays. Borders enable this diversity, this localism.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work together across the continent, it means we should do it in a way that serves to increase democracy, not decrease it. Symmetry is great for technocrats and corporations; asymmetry is good for communities and citizens.

But what does this have to do with post-pandemic transformation? First, I don’t believe that there is any chance of transformation of the neoliberal European model which bypasses the democracy of nation states. A technocratic solution put together by progressives and negotiated in Brussels but which bypasses proper public debate won’t work. We need to bring people with us, not bypass them.

Second, we need to be honest about multilateralism. The groundwork for transformation has not been done on the European continent. There are sporadic (and very encouraging) bursts of thinking and activism all over the place, but as I began this piece, can you show me leaders who, three months in, are assembling a winning campaign to change the way the EU does economics?

So what do you think the position is going to be after the compromises and lobbying of multilateralism? Radical reform appearing from nowhere and then compromised upwards?

Third, agreeing a single programme across the continent isn’t enough. The whole point is that what we need in Scotland (green reindustrialisation based on abundant and underused natural resources) will not be what others need in their country. We have massive potential in forestry – your nation may not.

This is what I mean by asymmetry – localism has to be a very major driver of recovery, and localism means working with the reality of place. Telling people in the Scottish Highlands to cycle to work is like telling someone in the middle of Amsterdam to put a wind turbine in their garden.

But finally, how on earth can we achieve the kind of framing and story-control I have described above at anything like the pace we need to do it if we are to have any chance of winning? If there was a means, a structure for forming a continent-wide approach anything like I’ve described, I’d be all over it. I just don’t think there is.

This has led to my conclusion about the reform of the European economic system, and it is the same as my view on tackling climate change. There is no multilateral route to do this which can work in the timescales needed. It would be lovely if there was, but there isn’t.

Instead I think it is time for us to think about ‘coalitions of the willing’. In climate change, we have published a comprehensive and costed Green New Deal which describes in detail how to reduce all of Scotland’s environmental impact to zero (not just climate, all seven global crises). We can do almost all of it domestically without waiting for anyone else (EU trade rules are the biggest problem).

As we did this massive piece of work I came to a growing conclusion – those who can change and who want to change need to do it now. Waiting for the rest to catch up is betrayal, not solidarity.

Those nations should find others who want to change too and form coalitions. In time, those coalitions of willing nations should open campaigns of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against nations which refuse to change. ‘Hugging it out’ across national boundaries has achieved very little. Hiding behind it when we should act is wrong.

I think Covid recovery needs the same thing. Those who can move fast and make change must do it and not wait for others. They should be bold in challenging the rules which have been imposed from above which prevent this change.

And those who want to change but are behind the curve a bit can then learn from and follow those who make the change. I don’t believe we can be a continent moving together through this, but I believe we can be a friendly and cooperative group of nations who support each other in changing.

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