The case against Green EU-philia

Jenny Jones and Rupert Read say the European Union is in need of radical reform to fix its serious defects, and an EU that does not undertake such reforms is not something that Greens should support.  First published in GreenWorld

We write as Greens who have both stood for election to the European Parliament (Read came close to election in Eastern England in 2009 and 2014). We see clearly how the EU can be and has been a force for good in terms of keeping the peace among
its member states and in terms of its impressive role in environmental and social regulation.

But we believe that the Green Party’s love-in with the EU needs to come to an end, to be replaced by a more honest willingness to face up to its very serious defects.

A clear example of those flaws is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU-US deal currently being negotiated, which the Green Party is united against for the following reasons:

• TTIP enables the democratic will of the people to be struck down by big business.

• TTIP is a project of secretive lobbying.

• TTIP is about gigantic corporations being able to break open and gobble up public procurement and public services.

We argue that TTIP should not be viewed as some kind of aberration from EU standard practice. It is EU standard practice:

• There is far too little democracy in the EU: the Council of Ministers operates almost entirely in secret and (together with the commission) holds the whip hand over the parliament on most issues.

• Brussels is dominated by corporate lobbyists who outnumber NGO lobbyists by about 15 to one. EU rules would make it very difficult for, for example, the railways to be brought back into full public ownership in this country.

• The EU has been a pro-business front from the beginning, and a vehicle for organisations such as the European Round Table of Industrialists to get their way. The Lisbon Treaty and the ‘Stability and Growth Pact’ have only deepened this.

It is an illusion to think that TTIP is anything other than a natural extension of the logic of the EU. We Greens, being serious about our outright opposition
to TTIP, need to be serious also about radically reforming the EU. It’s not just about ending the insanity of moving the parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg once a month. Anything less than
truly radical reform – such as ending
the impunity of the culture of secrecy, removing the huge power of business lobbyists, prioritising public service over private profit and one-planet ecological sanity over businesses’ endless-growth multi-planet agenda – would mean that the EU is probably, on balance, more of a hindrance than a help to Green objectives.

Moreover, systematic problems are caused by all four of the ‘four freedoms’: the freedom to move capital, products, ‘services’ and labour all over the EU.
The four freedoms constitute a bosses’ charter: they form together a key demand of exploitative international capital, a demand that should be rejected. There is no leftist case for an unreformed EU.

We are in the early stages of an EU referendum campaign. If we leave the EU reform agenda to David Cameron, we are condemning ourselves to political

irrelevance and the EU to becoming, in practice and on balance, even more of
a dogmatically anti-ecological, pro- growth, pro-big-business, undemocratic organisation than it already is.

The ‘Green Yes [to staying in the EU]’ campaign needs to be consistently constructively-critical of the EU’s pro- ‘globalisation’ agenda. We should call
for the referendum to include an option for an improved EU, along broadly green lines. We must not miss this historic opportunity to set out the kinds of reasons for a radically different approach from business-as-usual, reasons that were first brilliantly couched in Mike Woodin and Caroline Lucas’s book, Green Alternatives to Globalisation.

Let’s not insult the intelligence of
the British electorate. Let’s tell the
truth. There are tremendous structural difficulties in the way of reforming the EU to address most of the problems we’ve sketched above. One of us (Jones) is frankly sceptical that there is any chance of such reforms succeeding. The other
of us (Read) is determined to try. But we agree that an EU that does not undertake such reforms is not something that Greens should support. For the record, we both love Europe, just not the EU

Corbyn is great – but the Greens are different!

First published at: 

Jeremy Corbyn’s soaraway success in Labour’s leadership contest poses an existential threat to the Greens, writes Rupert Read. To counter it we must re-assert our distinctive ethos, values, policies and principles, rooted in ecologism not socialism, respecting natural limits, opposed to endless economic growth, dedicated to building and sharing the wealth we all hold in common.

Like many Greens, I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Corbyn. I’m hoping that he wins the Labour Leadership election – and the latest polling suggests that he will.

At the same time, I’m a Green, and without one shred of doubt I’m going to stay a Green. For Corbyn – for all his many virtues – is no Green. For he does not have an ecologistic approach.

What the Green Party should do, in the face of the ‘Corbyn surge’, is very simple. It should stay Green. It should make clear how the case of the Green Party is as strong as ever, even in the face of a Labour Leader being elected who in certain important policy areas agrees with us.

What exactly does that mean, in practice? First and foremost, it means accepting planetary boundaries, limits to growth and that even ‘green growth’ is no escape from those limits.

For Corbyn, like his mentor Tony Benn, is at heart an old-fashioned productivist, an advocate of a fantasised kinder, gentler industrial-growthism. This commitment of his undermines completely his laundry-list of ‘green’ policies.

The irresponsibility of ‘growthism’

It is utterly irresponsible at this point in history to stay in hock to the ideology of growthism – as Corbyn does. We need, bluntly, to denounce Labour’s same-old same-old commitment – a commitment it of course shares with the Tories and the LibDems – to endless economic growth.

Growthism without end makes it impossible to hit our climate mitigation targets, impossible to preserve wilderness and habitats, impossible to maintain green belts.

If Corbyn were ever to be PM, he would face an intractable tension between his commitment to some greenery (on the one hand), and his targets for industrial production and house-building and endlessly more economic activity (on the other). Guess which one of these would give way, in the face of this conflict? Only the Green Party can be trusted to safeguard our common future.

Moreover, the chimera of ‘growth’ has become the left’s way of not having to get serious about redistribution, about aiming for equality. This is the dirty secret of growthism: it’s a substitute for egalitarianism.

Corbyn et al secretly hope that, with the pie getting bigger, everyone can have more without big corporates and the rich having to tighten their belts that much. The pie can’t keep getting bigger, because the ingredients are running out. But there’s enough for everyone already: provided we share it.

For a particularly stark example of how bad Corbyn is in this connection, consider this: Corbyn wants to bring back coal-mining in South Wales! It would be hard to come up with a worse example than this of a growthist mentality, an out-of-date ‘extractivist’ fixation with mining and miners – even if he does want to use ‘clean coal’ technology to burn it.

Corbyn is probably more prone than most in Labour to enter into this fateful embrace with yesterday’s fuel, coal, a failure to come to terms with the post-growth future in which we will be on a course of  ‘energy descent’ and will power ourselves with the energy of the future: clean, green, renewable energy.

Taking land seriously

Next, being Green means taking seriously not just labour (as a Corbyn Labour Party will, in pleasant contrast to ‘New Labour’) but land. Land is the complement to labour; it is the other one of Polanyi’s ‘fictitious commodities’.

Labour’s fixation on industrialism means that it has a blind spot about the vast downsides of endlessly industrialising. Especially of industrialising the countryside. Corbyn is no different here. He and his followers don’t seem to have much ‘affinity’ with land.

Taking seriously land means, for starters, that the Green Party needs to be calling for a complete change in the way we grow our food. Out with ‘factory-farming’ – intensive industrialised production – of animals, of course; but out too with intensive industrialised production of plants.

I don’t mean talking to plants, Prince Charles style, nor plants’ rights. I’m simply talking ecology. We are as a nation and as a species destroying our soil, on which we and future generations utterly depend. We need to turn this supertanker around.

We need to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and chemical-based fertilizers; we need to invest massively in permaculture, agroforestry, organic farming and above all in agroecology. We need to end the absurd subsidies for mega-farmers who are wrecking our countryside, and instead we need to farm appropriately for our soils.

This means growing vegetables in some places, rearing animals – humanely – in others, and rewilding in still others.

Good food and food security

We cannot as a nation feed ourselves. This is a scandal and a danger, a key source of unresilience in difficult times. We need as a nation to eat (on average) lower on the food chain, but we also need to enrich our soils rather than destroying them.

This is something an intelligent eco-friendly regime of mixed farming can accomplish, while our current industrial agriculture certainly cannot. We need to achieve food sovereignty.

Hyper-mechanised agriculture is not the future: smaller-scale farming using human labour more is. We need to get more people back onto the land. Starting, obviously, with those who yearn to have land of their own but who can’t get it.

Land reform isn’t an issue only for countries like Brazil: we need land reform here. It is a disgrace that 0.6% of people in Britain own 69% of the land – incredibly, we are, in fact, an even more land-unequal country than Brazil!

We need to become a nation not so much of shopkeepers, as Napoleon famously once said, but of efficient and ecological smallholders. Labour has no interest in or appetite for land reform. Greens need to place front and central that we mean it on land reform.

We need to rebuild a sense of land as a commons. And we need to rebuild commons themselves, and recognise and institutionalise ‘new’ commons such as the net, the seas and the air. The new common-sense should be ‘commons-sense’.

An integral part of taking land seriously and taking seriously that it is a commons – and no longer fixating only on labour and capital – is Land-Value Tax (LVT) in place of other forms of property taxation. 

LVT has long been utterly marginal in the Labour Party, but is a long-standing landmark policy for the Green Party. It ends a huge source of unjust speculative wealth gain. It is pivotal in the replacement of regressive Council Tax with a more progressive and intelligent fiscal system. It helps to disincentivise building on greenfield sites. And so much more.

This trio of policies – ending soil-mining industrial agriculture, initiating a massive redistributive programme of land reform, and introducing LVT – establishes the Green Party’s claim to be serious about land, which urbanite Labour aren’t and never will be. And it pulls the rug from under Labour’s exclusive claim to be the anti-Tory Party, the Party of and for the little guy.

Corbyn’s Labour is never going to get anywhere in rural England. The Green Party can, and offers a package of policies that will enable it to become the main opposition to the Tories in rural areas, and ultimately defeat them too.

Work, work, work?

Crucially, truly being Green means ending the love affair which Labour has always had – and that Corbyn shares – with rewarding work, and so perpetuating an overworked society obsessed with the seize of its wage packets and focussed on consumption, keeping up with the Joneses.

Instead, it is our goal to create the leisure society: not in the sense of idealising idleness, but of giving us the time in which to enjoy and create fulfilment in life beyond paid employment. We should start by asserting our desire for an ever-reducing working week. Rather than taking any gains in productivity as more wages, we should incentivise and normalise working less.

It’s absurd to have some people unemployed while others are hospitalised from stress resulting from overwork. Let’s share the work out, more equally. And let’s be glad when there’s less of it.

But this is only the start. The truly radical policy measure to boost the UK in the direction of the leisure society is the unconditional Citizens Income. Again, a hallmark, central Green policy which Labour has never shown any interest in.

Sharing the wealth; sharing (and reducing our collective impact on) land; sharing (and steadily reducing the need to) work: this is the future. This is the truly radical agenda – not Corbynite Labourism.

So the Greens do have a clear argument against Corbyn’s Labour Party. And that’s important as without it, we’ll probably wither. I want the Green Party to succeed because I profoundly believe in the ecologistic philosophy it embodies. And without it, we lack an offer that’s distinctive.

The future is Green

We Greens must outflank Corbyn’s Labour – not in conventional left-right terms, but through changing the conversation, reframing the debate, and advocating a radical change in direction for our society.

That means living within limits; respecting land as the foundation of food, life, wealth and culture; recognising our commons in all their manifestations; valuing leisure time at least as much as work; and sharing our skills, talents and resources in our communities and wider society.

Because the future was never going to be red, let alone orange. If there is going to be a bright future at all, it will be green.

Through his success in Labour leadership contest, Corbyn looks like putting an end to the hopeless dream of those who wanted to turn the Green Party into a Mark III Labour Party of socialism plus caring about climate change. Because that’s what Corbyn will be in a position to deliver in the Labour Party itself.

So Greens must wake up and remember that we are so much more than that, with our own distinctive history, values, policies and purpose.

Because of this, Jeremy Corbyn’s likely election may prove the best thing that ever happened to the Green Party. It’s up to us to make it so.

The Tyranny of Evidence

(first published at

A central aspect of my philosophical work these days is this: to warn against over-estimating, for example, how much one can learn from past financial crises, in thinking about future financial crises. How much, to put it in more general – and philosophical – terms, one can learn inductively. There is plenty one can learn; but there is also a severe limit on what one can learn. There is a limit, in other words, on the value of evidence.

The danger of not being continually aware of this point is that one may think, at least unconsciously, that there are specific lessons to learn and that, once one has learnt them, then one’s job is done and one has genuinely ensured as best one can that there will not be further such crises in the future.

This would be a hubristic stance. Hubris, in the long run, inevitably leads to nemesis.

For we are always going to be living in a social world that defies full comprehension and control. A world that we do not and never will fully understand, as my colleague Nassim N. Taleb puts it, in his 2012 book Anti-Fragile.

The real challenge, the deep thing that one has to learn, is how best to seek safety for the economy, for citizens, in such a world: in a world that one accepts as a world one cannot predict and control.

That we live in such a world is revealed by financial crises. In fact, that might itself be justly said to be the deepest thing one can learn from them. 

This is the challenge we face: to learn to live more safely in a world that we are never going to be able to understand or control or even ‘manage’. This entails a ‘letting-go’.

But the alternative is worse: that, by seeking to manage, to master, our world, we give ourselves a false assurance that all is going to be well, and make it more likely that we will ‘blow up’.

Now: it is of course an excellent thing to seek to learn from history – from the history, for example, of past financial crises. Hyman Minsky and John Maynard Keynes are among the maestros of having done so.

But there is danger in such learning, too. One such danger is what Taleb calls ‘the narrative fallacy’: falling into the trap of seeing in history an anticipation of all future possibilities, rather than (as one ought to) seeing in history only a tiny sub-section of what could have happened, let alone what might happen in the future.

When seeking to minimise the chances of financial crises in the future, one ought to focus most of one’s attention on what can be done to build down the risk of ‘black swans’ (Taleb, 2007); rare, devastating, inherently-unpredictable events. By definition, such events are vanishingly rare in the historical record, and what such events there are are only a very poor sample of the possible such events that there could be.

The philosophical work that I am undertaking at present jointly with Taleb is devoted to exploring these and related thoughts in relation to financial crises, and to other such black swans (e.g. in the environmental sphere). In particular, Taleb and I are formulating a version of the Precautionary Principle not vulnerable to the kinds of objections usually made against it (by Cass Sunstein – the author of Nudge, and others).

The Precautionary Principle (PP) states, basically, that, where the stakes are high, a lack of full knowledge or of reliable models – a lack of certainty – should not be a barrier to legitimate precautionary action. We shouldn’t, in other words, need certainty, in order to justify protective action.

Invoking precaution is thus an alternative to or a complement to invoking evidence. Our contemporary politics, economics, risk-management, medicine and science are all fixated on evidence and on being ‘evidence-based’. My argument is that this is dangerous. One can’t have ‘evidence’ of things that haven’t happened yet, nor to any meaningful degree of things that are very rare, nor to any meaningful degree of things dependent upon human decision.

Why can’t you know the social world and manage it?

There are two main reasons:

(1) The social world is a made up of – constituted by – understandings (Winch, 1958, 1990; Read, 2008). Of interpretations. It defies scientisation. It is an illusion to think that it can be known as the physical world can be known, ‘from the outside’. It can only be truly known ‘participatorily’.

(2) Even if, per impossibile, the social/economic world could be known scientifically, it still could not be controlled/managed. Because it is a moving target (Read, 2012). Because human beings respond to attempts to know them: by seeking to make them true, or by seeking to make them false, or in other ways. There are many examples of this. A famous and salient one is Goodhart’s Law. A simpler version of the point is encapsulated in a marvellous remark made by Louis Armstrong (or sometimes attributed to Humphrey Littleton ) on the future of jazz: “If I knew where jazz was going, I’d be there already…”

There are limits, unsurpassable limits, on the knowability of our future.

We might think that as we come to know more, these limits will recede. But this is not true. The PP is increasingly relevant, due to man-made dependencies that propagate impacts of policies across the globe: this applies strongly to globalised economic and financial systems and to globalised ecosystems (e.g. the climate system). In contrast, absent humanity, the biosphere engages in natural experiments due to random variations with only local impacts.

Now, the PP is essential for a limited set of contexts and can be used to justify only a limited set of actions. GMOs are one good example (see my recent ‘evidence’ to Parliament on this): they represent a public risk of global harm. The PP should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs. Likewise, the PP should be used to proscribe various forms of financial behaviour that have a potentiality to unleash black swans.

In conclusion:

i) The social world is necessarily partly opaque to social/‘scientific’ knowledge, precisely because it is constituted by human beings, who are intrinsically understanders, intrinsically responsive to efforts to know them, etc.

ii) We need to be less fixated on the evidence, where the human world is concerned, and more determined to take up a precautionary stance. The stakes are high. It would be wrong to gamble, in such a situation. And being ‘evidence-based’, I have shown, is, ironically, being just such a foolish and unethical gambler.

In sum, what’s more reliable than evidence? Precaution.