The Weight of Life

In a rush to minimise the recession following Covid-19, some hold their economies dearer than the saving of lives. But prosperity isn’t the indefinite depletion of bodies and resources. It is through the satisfaction of basic needs that we will restore the dignity of all. What follows is a detailed reflection by Achille Mbembe on what the global pandemic means for the future of societies in Africa.

Covid-19 has confirmed certain intuitions that have been raised many times, although always ignored, over the course of the last half-century. The first concerns the status and position of the human species within the vastness of the universe. We are not the only inhabitants of Earth, nor are we set above other beings. We are crisscrossed by fundamental interactions with microbes and viruses and all sorts of vegetal, mineral and organic forces. More accurately, we are partly composed of these other beings. But they also decompose and recompose us. They make and unmake us, starting with our bodies, our environments and our ways of living.

The pandemic has revealed not just the complexity and fragility of the structure and content of human civilisations, but the vulnerability of life itself, in all its anarchy and diversity. This fundamental vulnerability is the very essence of humanity. But it is shared, to varying degrees, by every creature on this planet – a planet that powerful forces threaten to render inhospitable, if not uninhabitable, to the majority of living things.

A planetary chain

But the pandemic has also laid bare the disorder, violence and injustice that structure the world. Despite scattered progress, the “perpetual peace” that Immanuel Kant hoped for remains a mirage for most people. Now as ever, the sovereignty and independence of countless nations are ultimately protected and guaranteed by war, or rather, the possibility of disproportionate spilling of blood. This is what is known euphemistically as the “balance of powers”. The establishment of an international system of solidarity with a power structure that transcends national sovereignties is still a long way off. At the same time, the idea of a return to autarchic empires is nothing more than a fantasy.

Meanwhile, a whole constellation of forces that are as much physical or natural as they are organic or mechanical – including technology, the media and the financial markets – are busy weaving a lattice of fractures between every part of the world.

The pandemic has revealed not just the complexity and fragility of the structure and content of human civilisations, but the vulnerability of life itself, in all its anarchy and diversity.

A planetary chain that ignores (and paradoxically relies on) state borders and has no relation to official cartographies is currently gaining shape and strength. Made up of intertwinings and interdependences, it is not the same as “globalisation”, at least in the sense of the term since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is rather an exploded whole: networks, flows and circuits that constantly dissolve and re-form at varying speeds and on multiple scales. This whole emerges out of many different entanglements, not least between inhabited areas and wildernesses and their respective boundaries. The weave of the world is composed of numerous extremities and a multitude of large and small nuclei. Nothing is outside it. Everything serves, at one point or another, as a relay in the rapid circulation of all types of flow.

Of course, not everything moves to the same rhythm. But planetary existence in all its manifestations (terrestrial, marine, aerial, orbital, fibreoptic) is now ruled by motion and speed. It is not just capital flows that move. Humans, animals, pathogens and objects are also mobile, as are all sorts of goods, data and information. Raw materials are extracted in one place and refined in another. Components are assembled into goods somewhere else again.

As discontinuous as they seem, the pathways things follow are often the same, moving from the crudest tangibility to the most ethereal abstraction. We are witnessing the gradual development of planetary complexes that operate at various scales and across networks that are more or less spatially fragmented.

The right to a future

The most serious problem is global warming caused by humanity’s emission of greenhouse gases. These are the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, not to mention the ultrafine dust, toxic emissions, invisible substances, tiny granules and all sorts of particulate matter. Soon there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than oxygen. In Africa specifically, the greatest concern is the depletion of fish stocks, the degradation of mangrove swamps, the increasing levels of nitrate pollution and the deterioration of coastal zones. It is also the sell off of forests, the excessive use of agrochemicals, human encroachment onto natural land, the loss of rare species – in short, the destruction of the biosphere.

Humanity will not survive if we continue to rely on the continuous consumption of vast quantities of energy that must be sourced from ever deeper inside the bowels of the earth.

None of this is the result of chance. On the contrary, it is the inevitable outcome of the extraction and squandering of the earth’s resources, a paradigm that can be maintained only by the constant and uninterrupted combustion of fossil fuels in a planetwide technological and industrial network. Humanity will not survive if we continue to rely on the continuous consumption of vast quantities of energy that must be sourced from ever deeper inside the bowels of the earth.

The current state of the earth means that events like Covid-19 are likely to happen again in the relatively near future. Thanks to the industrialisation of meat markets, the intensification of relationships between humans and other species, the expansion of monoculture and the climate catastrophe, we are facing the imminent risk of new pandemics. Because any of these could ultimately result in our demise, each will provoke intense fear accompanied by bursts of irrationality. The question of the right to exist, the right to breathe and the right to a future will become even more pressing.

The right to exist

The right to exist will be increasingly inseparable from its opposite, the hunt for carriers of infectious germs – in other words, the identification of who to sacrifice for the sake of everyone else’s survival. The great danger is that these apparently health-based decisions will end up jeopardising the lives of undesirables. This risk is inherent both in the novel economic forms now emerging, and in the techniques of government made possible by the pandemic.

Necessary as they are, the technologies deployed during the crisis do not in themselves eliminate the danger. On the contrary, it would be easy to invoke health reasons to justify their use against any human being deemed to be a biological risk. Many sovereign functions properly performed by state agencies are already being outsourced, particularly to giant corporations and technology companies in sectors like artificial intelligence, quantum science, hypersonic speed and technologies for localisation, capture and tracing.

This raises numerous questions with no satisfying answers, at least for the moment. If reality can now only be described or represented using numbers and abstract codes, and if codes and numbers seem increasingly to be taking on the dimensions of a cosmogony, how can we ensure that the logic behind the counting and weighing of lives does not become a logic of elimination and erasure?

In this era of unbounded calculation, are we dealing with absolute certainties, or probabilities and hence wagers? What does immunity mean if measuring the risk is the same thing as quantifying the chance? How can we recognise the signs of a state turning against its own population instead of “protecting society”?

At first sight, the corona lockdown was about saving lives and avoiding anyone being sacrificed unnecessarily. In reality, however, there was always going to be a price to pay, both as a whole and at the individual level. Economic activity may have slowed overall, but countless sweatshops are still operating. Warehouses, data centres, industrial farms, meat processing plants and other apparatuses of digital capitalism have all remained open.

Many people have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, even their lives. The public treasury has been depleted. A recession has been declared. International debts have been incurred and our children’s future has been mortgaged. In the world’s poorest areas, the lack of insurance or assistance during temporary or sustained periods of poverty and deprivation is a structuring element of the daily struggle to survive.

The right to breathe

Even in normal times, equality before death is a myth. The right to exist is meaningless unless it is accompanied by its corollary, the right to subsist. Food can only be acquired by leaving the house and, often, travelling long distances at increasingly great expense (unreliable transport, interminable journeys on foot, all sorts of permits and authorisations). The hunt for food is an endless cycle of walking, hustling, haggling, bargaining, moving on, using all means possible, even illegal ones.

The ability to move freely and travel around is a prerequisite for access to food and provisions. So is the ability to plug into networks of social solidarity, to accumulate allegiances and affiliations, to convert temporary arrangements into the resources required for permanence. Physical encounters, gatherings of people in close proximity, direct contact with other humans, even overcrowding – without these the daily battle to survive would be lost before it began. It is won not in isolation but by people coming together.

In these circumstances, forced immobility is not just a form of punishment. It is also a way to expose a significant proportion of the population to enormous danger. The poorest members of society, who have no safety net and nobody to take care of them, can now no longer even take care of themselves. Under lockdown, the most vulnerable people are confronted by a still more dramatic choice: obey the instruction to stay at home, respect the law and starve to death; or defy the law, go outside and risk catching the disease.

The market calculus

Although the choice once lockdown is lifted is no longer between the virus and starvation, the dilemma is no less acute. From the standpoint of market forces, the economy must be restarted, even if it means some loss of life. The calculus is as follows: only a tiny percentage of the total population will die as a result of the pandemic; those people, who are mainly unemployed or unemployable, would have been hit sooner or later anyway, killed by the virus or other comorbidity factors. Trying to keep them alive at any cost is not just expensive. The price of their survival will be the loss of many more lives. Economic ruin would lead to societal breakdown; the cost is therefore unacceptable. On that basis, they should be allowed to die immediately.

From a market perspective, the right to exist and the right to subsist are entirely dependent on financial speculation and so fluctuation. Just like food, a living must be earned, and nobody can earn one by being idle. One way to earn a living is to work for a salary. In practical terms, the right to life is reserved for those who obtain it through a salary, a job or work. The fact remains, however, that many people simply cannot find paid employment. Their bread and butter must be cobbled together under conditions of hazard and uncertainty.

Covid-19 has thus exposed various types of human and social degradation and economic subjection. In the age of digital capitalism, there is no guarantee that labour power offered for sale will be bought. Work still has a market value. But there is less and less paid employment to go around.

From a market perspective, the right to exist and the right to subsist are entirely dependent on financial speculation and so fluctuation.

This is particularly true where the virus is affecting societies that were already vulnerable, in the process of disintegration, or suffering under the yoke of tyranny. In these parts of the world, government by neglect and omission is the rule. They are the site of the most brutal experiments (including medical ones) at the intersection of life and non-life. The market economy in such areas is oriented around expenditure, wastage and disposal. In this context, sacrifice does not necessarily mean gratuitous murder. Deep down, there is nothing sacred about it. It is not intended to win the favour of some divinity. It requires people to present themselves for counting, tallies to be performed, measurements to be made and lives to be weighed, with those deemed not to count discarded.

These policies of disposal seem to be part of the normal order of things, so self-evident as to need no further thought. The question now is when the decision will be taken.

When will we decide that such a sacrifice is socially unacceptable? When will we come back to the idea that it is life that is invaluable, and thus fundamentally beyond the reach of any form of measurement? Life cannot be counted or weighed. It is, simply, incalculable.

What is to be done?

At this point, we must pause, open our eyes, allow ourselves to feel shaken, and then take a step back. Tomorrow cannot simply be a repetition of yesterday. What Africa needs is a ‘great transition’.

We must strike at the root of the social, political and economic system of extraction and predation. Prosperity does not mean the indefinite depletion of human bodies and material resources. It is about the quality of social ties, about restraint and simplicity. What we need is deceleration and withdrawal. We must work together to re-localise the economy through small-scale actions. For it is through the satisfaction of basic needs that we will restore the dignity of all. Rehabilitating localness means supporting the sorts of place-based resilience that Africa is already brimming with.

We must move away from a relationship with the state that is based exclusively on extraction and predation, and instead, imagine a relationship that is productive and socially beneficial.

Especially since the nineteenth century, Africa has developed hybrid forms of organisation in production and trade. This is a strength, not a weakness. The continent has largely escaped total domination by capital and the state, two powerful modern forms for which it has been a constant thorn in the side. We must turn to communities and their institutions, to their memories and knowledge, to their collective intelligence. In particular, we must learn how they used to, and still do, distribute the resources needed for human self-reproduction.

Alongside official society, with its internal hierarchies, there have always been peer societies. In these spaces of the commons and “in-common”, resources are managed participatively through open, contributory systems that go far beyond taxation. These peer societies are governed by the dual principle of mutuality and social negotiation. Welfare benefit associations are just one example. The “informal economy” demonstrates that many social agents feel driven to create something that can be directly useful to other contributors. They make a living by producing added value for the market. Beyond exchange, it is the development of these productive communities that should be encouraged.

The great transition

Africa must, of its own volition, begin a “great transition”. The goal of this transition will be to create the conditions for social reinforcement and investment. The balance between the market and the state, and between the state and society, needs to be adjusted in order to foster mutualisation. For a very long time, the state has been dominated by predators who use their power within the bureaucracy to maximise their personal gain. As it stands, the state invests almost nothing to maintain or strengthen the generative capacities of communities.

As it stands, the state invests almost nothing to maintain or strengthen the generative capacities of communities.

We must move away from a relationship with the state that is based exclusively on extraction and predation, and instead, imagine a relationship that is productive and socially beneficial. The scales must be tipped in favour of the productive classes of society, rather than the bureaucracy and – formal or informal – armed forces. New technologies have unlocked the ability to communicate via the digital medium. As long as digital media are used to develop critical faculties, to increase the capacity for self-organisation, and the capacity to create and redistribute value, this ability can be leveraged for the benefit of the productive class and the detriment of rent-seekers.

Reinventing sovereignty

Finally, it will not be enough to reinvent the economy. We must also reimagine democracy. Governing does not just mean providing social security against crises and risks of all kinds. It also means ensuring that interactions between all living things in our environments are as harmonious as possible. This must be the foundation on which we establish a new social contract, one that includes all the non-human inhabitants of the planet, as individuals and as species.

Governing does not just mean providing social security against crises and risks of all kinds.

The very idea of sovereignty must be reinvented. In the future, the ultimate sovereign authority must be the ecosystem itself. This was the case in precolonial African societies, where human rule involved constant care that the ecosystem remained in equilibrium. Truly human societies were those that knew how to embrace all other environments and species.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in Eurozine.

The Doughnut Model for a Fairer, Greener Amsterdam

As the Brussels region gears up to reform its economy on the basis of the doughnut model, Amsterdam is already taking the leap with its renewed sustainability strategy. In developing this strategy, the city council engaged the now world-renowned creator of this model, Kate Raworth to tailor the model to Amsterdam’s social and environmental problems. What follows is a conversation with Marieke van Doorninck, the municipal councillor responsible for a circular economy, on what doughnut economics will mean in practice for Amsterdam.

On April 8, Amsterdam city council adopted a five-year circular economy strategy. This strategy includes many measures that businesses, the municipality, and also citizens will have to put in place in the coming years. For example, circular consumer goods – such as furniture, electronics, paint, and textiles – must become more available to locals. The city has committed to building a supportive infrastructure that includes sharing platforms, thrift shops, online marketplaces, and repair services. The goal is to halve the use of new raw materials by 2030 and to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050.

Amsterdam’s circular economy strategy is a tailored elaboration of the “doughnut model” created by British economist Kate Raworth. The doughnut is a way to think about how to solve environmental and socio-economic challenges in a coherent and balanced way. While the environment and the economy have long been approached in a piecemeal way, the model describes how societies and businesses can contribute to economic development that respects the boundaries of planet and society. Amsterdam’s “city doughnut” provides a target for the future and will be supplied with a great deal of data. Above all, the doughnut is expected to offer a compass for measuring prosperity beyond the here and now.

Socrates Schouten: The doughnut is a striking new term, but how new is the idea? Politicians are already working nationwide on the concept of wellbeing, for example.

Marieke van Doorninck: There is indeed a broad movement that recognises that ecology and the social domain are interlinked, and that green sustainability cannot isolate itself from other challenges. The approach to the broad concept of wellbeing is reflected in the way we are constructing the monitor. The doughnut helps us to tell the story. Our strategy may be focused on Amsterdam, but in the end, it’s about a bigger story that will bring global structures into focus.

Amsterdam has chosen to use Kate Raworth’s doughnut model. What exactly does this entail?
The doughnut brings our society’s two main categories of problems – social problems and environmental problems – together under one framework. We don’t have the social foundation in order; too many people are dealing with poverty, loneliness or housing problems. At the same time, we are exceeding planetary boundaries because of the way we inhabit the earth. Climate change and loss of biodiversity threaten to make the planet unliveable. The doughnut provides a clear picture of this dual problem and helps to identify contradictions at the city level. For example, housing prices partly determine the economic performance of the city: when prices are high, we think that the city is doing well. However, for many, it means they can no longer afford a house here. We want to change that.

It strikes me that the doughnut model and the term “circular economy” are used interchangeably. Amsterdam is launching the doughnut model and the circular strategy at the same time. What is the difference? And can all of this fit within the portfolio of a single councillor?
The doughnut certainly does not correspond to a single councillor. The entire municipal board supports this concept and we are proposing it together. The design of Amsterdam’s new circular economy strategy was the most important reason to embrace Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics theory. The circular economy is the first dossier we are looking at through the doughnut lens. Other policy areas will have to follow, but that’s up to the respective councillors.

How does the doughnut enrich the circular economy?
We already try to be as circular as possible when purchasing products and collecting and processing waste in the city. But as we were defining this new strategy through 2025, with a vision towards 2030, we were looking for a connecting story. The doughnut connects the measures needed to make the city more social and liveable in all respects.

[The doughnut model] also holds up a mirror to what the city is doing reasonably well, and where we are clearly falling short or crossing borders.

While the terms “sustainability” and “circularity” immediately give the impression that we are doing good things, we are missing the structural changes required to really do things differently. Our starting point for this strategy was: “You don’t have to do circular things, you have to do things circularly.” The doughnut is a fine model for that. Not only does it offer a theory about the connection between the social and the sustainable, but it also holds up a mirror to what the city is doing reasonably well, and where we are clearly falling short or crossing borders.

So we are using the doughnut model to make the strategy more coherent and more impactful. You can ofcourse have a circular economy strategy without a doughnut model. But then it doesn’t go further than simply doing nice circular things, without looking at the bigger picture.

The doughnut has two limits: the outer ring (the ecological ceiling) and the inner ring (the social foundation). How does the municipality visualise the various upper and lower limits of urban prosperity?
We have made an “urban selfie”, a first sketch that shows where we cross both the inner and outer boundaries of the doughnut. On the social level, the city has taken stock of unaffordable housing as well as people living in social isolation and consequently at a higher risk of experiencing loneliness and depression. We’ve done the same for the environment in terms of mapping our greenhouse gas emissions and the overconsumption of non-sustainable materials.

On top of our existence as Amsterdammers, we have developed instruments to measure the impact of our consumption patterns on people and nature in other countries. The doughnut enables us to look into the social and ecological impacts that our local economy has on places around the world where our products and raw materials originate from.

The urban selfie is our baseline measurement for where we are now. We are still developing a system that will monitor whether it’s possible to do better in staying within the limits of the doughnut from this point onwards.

I can imagine that Amsterdammers are wondering: all right, that’s a beautiful story, but what’s actually going to change?
Concrete measures are the roughly 200 projects included in the implementation programme. They range from collecting leftover latex paint to introducing material passports that keep a detailed record of the composition of buildings so that its constitutive elements are easier to reuse. In the long term, we want to make this compulsory for the entire construction sector. We are constantly tightening the sustainability requirements for buildings and we recommend sustainable and circular materials, such as timber.

We also support social initiatives with the doughnut. The initiative for the first “doughnut deal” was taken by an inhabitant of Amsterdam-Zuidoost. She wants to help people living in poorly insulated houses reduce their energy bills by providing them with thick curtains, which have been made by people excluded from labour market. Some of these projects have been co-financed by the municipality.

To what extent can you fundamentally reform an economy at the local level when faced with global chains and consumption patterns?
We have deliberately chosen three areas where we have the necessary influence as a city: food, construction and consumer goods. In the area of food, we can take big steps to reduce waste. But Amsterdam can’t do it on its own. We need the Dutch government and the European Union to truly move forward.

Take the requirements we are setting for consumer products for example. Everyone knows the frustration that results when appliances are difficult to repair. If one button breaks, you have to throw the whole thing away. On top of that, plastics are often hard to recycle because they contain different materials. Many people are fed up with this wasteful culture, and regulation is the only answer.

The discussion around small plastic bottles proved that the market will not solve the problem; the Dutch government expanded its deposit system to include small PET bottles after failing to move the drinks industry to reduce this waste. At the municipality, we had been waiting for this to happen for years.

[…] Amsterdam can’t do it on its own. We need the Dutch government and the European Union to truly move forward.

We are also lobbying for more space for local experimentation. For example, current legislation distinguishes between household and industrial waste, with the latter being collected by various private companies. We have been granted a pilot exemption from the Environmental Management Act for Amsterdam’s “9 Streets” shopping area, which means that the municipality is responsible for the collection and processing of waste there. This will reduce the number of trips made by rubbish trucks.

Another long-cherished wish is for a lower tax on labour and higher taxes on the use of raw materials. A circular economy has the potential to create many jobs. However, if labour remains expensive, there is a strong incentive to use raw materials more lavishly, avoid precision work and repairs, and buy Chinese products in bulk. We want labour to be valued more and the use of primary raw materials to be reduced as much as possible. A simple tax measure will help companies that want to work circularly.

The Guardian even headlined that Amsterdam is embracing the doughnut model to shape the post-coronavirus recovery. Won’t this be difficult at a time when council resources are in short supply?

We came out with our circular strategy in the middle of the coronavirus era. We wondered about the timing of the proposal and what in the plan could survive such an acute health crisis. But how do we ensure that we do not go back to business as usual when the worst of the crisis is behind us? How do we shape an urban economy that no longer relies on infinite growth but ensures that everyone has enough to live decently within the limits of the planet?

Considering these questions, The Guardian is right in pointing out that now is precisely the right time. One of the reasons why we think the doughnut is such a workable model is that it brings together a great many crises and connects the problems we encounter in Amsterdam – and actually throughout the entire world. The emphasis on producing, consuming and reprocessing regionally will create jobs – which is very important in dealing with the recession – and make the economy more resilient.

Is the doughnut also viable outside Amsterdam? Here we have a progressive majority and the doughnut seems to me to be very green-left. A green outer shell and a leftist bottom: that combination defines Groenlinks as a party.
You don’t have to be a GroenLinks supporter to embrace the idea of a circular economy. In the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, which is the most left-wing of the 32 municipalities, far-reaching agreements have been concluded about working circularly. Perhaps not all of them are according to the doughnut model but they all have very strong ambitions on sustainability.

Our strategy may be focused on Amsterdam, but in the end, it’s about a bigger story that will bring global structures into focus.

Since that story in The Guardian, I have been asked a lot about the doughnut. The CEO of a prominent Amsterdam company said that he finds it interesting, and referred to the book The Value of Everything by the economist Mariana Mazzucato. These ideas show that a different economy is possible without having to give up a lot. There are more values in the economy than we realise.

Even without a theoretical framework, you can certainly start sustainable projects that familiarise people with the idea that we need to use primary raw materials sparingly, and that there is more to life than our culture of consumption and waste. At the urban level, however, you need a model that combines ecological and social components. Both theory and practice are needed to make it possible for more people to experience wellbeing in a clean world.

This interview was first published in Dutch by De Helling.

Brazil’s Battle Lines: Fighting for Democracy Amid a Pandemic

Already facing a crisis of democracy, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a tug-of-war between states and the central government of Brazil into the mix. For the majority of the population, this has meant a high death toll, poor access to health care, lack of trust in government and grimmer future prospects. In this interview, Marco Reigota explains where battle lines are being drawn and where glimmers of hope lie.

Patrick Dupriez: The Covid-19 crisis in Brazil has been alarming: over 130,000 deaths and a government that denies the gravity of the situation. How can we explain the handling of the pandemic in Brazil today?

Marcos Reigota: It’s been disastrous. Early in the crisis, people recognised the role they had to play with social distancing measures. But President Bolsonaro went out onto the street insisting that people return to work and that the virus posed little danger. As a result, lockdown compliance fell drastically.

São Paulo is the city hardest hit so far in terms of the pandemic’s death toll. The region’s governor, until recently an ally of the central government, has had to take measures that go against Bolsonaro. A lockdown was in place until June and schools were closed, but the social pressure against them is enormous due to Bolsonaro’s and the central government’s actions. We’re facing a political crisis and we don’t know how it will end.

So, there’s a tug-of-war between the states and the central government?

Exactly. But state governments are independent of the central government. In São Paulo, a scientific committee of leading experts provides guidance to the regional government, which is listening to these experts and implementing a lockdown. The data and figures available to us show that the virus will remain with us for a long time to come.

At a national level, we’ve had two health ministers resign. Although ideologically similar to the central government, they were both doctors who clashed with President Bolsonaro because of his refusal to follow their recommendations. Now a soldier has taken over as health minister, installing several other army officers in key positions in the ministry. We now have an institution that is being militarised.

Now a soldier has taken over as health minister, installing several other army officers in key positions in the ministry.

In the state of Manaus, where lockdown and social distancing measures haven’t worked, the number of deaths is especially startling. There is no medical assistance in isolated and remote regions. This means that when people from rural areas arrive in the capital, they add to the city’s number of patients, which fills up the hospitals. This situation is seen elsewhere too: healthcare facilities are full. Private healthcare centres exist, but they are unaffordable for the vast majority of the population. A psychiatrist told me that, for a visit to a big hospital and a simple test, he had to pay the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage. If the state doesn’t help, only a small section of the population can access private hospitals.

Are indigenous populations also facing many hardships?

Yes. Local accounts from the Amazon region, near French Guiana, reveal that the hardships and consequences of the pandemic are terrible. What’s more, the central government is completely indifferent to these populations. The central government is supposed to look after these areas, but it couldn’t give a damn. Communities are disappearing and nothing is being done. And data on deaths and infections is not at all reliable.

Communities are disappearing and nothing is being done.

How has this pandemic laid bare the way Brazilian society works? Has it resulted in greater collective awareness?

Having an education and a steady job has allowed me to cope with lockdown and doing everything at home. There’s an upper class that doesn’t think twice about protesting in support of the central government in their big SUVs, even outside hospitals, with no regard whatsoever for other sections of society. They claim to be exercising their constitutional rights and that the freedom to come and go must be defended. There is little thought for victims of the virus, given the lower infection rates among the upper class. The question is: how did Brazil reach this level of cruelty shown by one social class towards others? It’s mostly whites, but it isn’t just them.

In Rio, in the absence of the state in certain areas, public health decisions are taken by gangs, who ask people not to leave their homes.

In Rio, in the absence of the state in certain areas, public health decisions are taken by gangs, who ask people not to leave their homes. Elsewhere, in other favelas, we are also seeing experiments in self-governance set up. It’s still hard to see concrete results, but these groups are showing a desire for political autonomy from a central power that rejects them and denies their existence. A political reorganisation is underway that is not being led by parties but by something else. It will be very interesting to see how it turns out.

Could this crisis bring opportunities for change, for societal transformation?

In the sense of micro-politics, yes. How are groups positioning themselves in terms of what’s happening? If we take the education system for instance, this has been turned upside down. In-person classes moved online to keep pupils and students connected. However, problems in using the technological tools that allow these connections to take place persist. What’s important is understanding how people experience these moments. A situation occurred that we hadn’t anticipated and there remain huge question marks for the future. Many students don’t have a computer or a mobile phone at home. Given this fact, how are they going to manage in their future careers? How will they adapt and earn a living in the ensuing economic crisis? Other sectors, like the cooperative and solidarity economy, may present opportunities for work. What’s more, we see that students respond positively to this possibility. But this is just a micro context in São Paulo specifically.

A political reorganisation is underway that is not being led by parties […]

Collective creativity is one positive development in my opinion. Here it comes down to the responsibility of institutions, like schools and universities, to bring generations together and enable the sharing of experiences. I stress the responsibility that teachers have towards the values of democracy, solidarity, ecology, etc. which are universal values that must be emphasised.

In Europe, we’re hearing a chorus of individual and collective voices insisting on the need for a new post-coronavirus world. In Brazil, is there also an idea of a different, fairer world that could emerge following this public-health crisis?

Since the far right succeeded the Dilma Rousseff’s administration, there is a growing idea that we need to come together, act together and do things collectively. Culture is helping to spread this idea: Poetry, essays, photography, cinema, etc. can be found on social media today. People have been driven to express themselves and, on social media, have found an opportunity to make a name for themselves. There is new cultural output that is reimagining politics. We are creating other ways of doing politics. It’s positive and it’s a huge change. We’re seeing a break with the established order. Is it too intellectual? Maybe. But if this environment is a “school” that enables the creation of alternative political and educational processes, that’s a step forward.

Could the pandemic accelerate this movement?

Yes because concrete things are happening. The debates around climate change haven’t managed to change things whereas the pandemic has because it confronts us with impermanence and the inevitable.

The pandemic has made us face up to the life that we are living and the life that we want to live. This brings us back to dignity, to the very ethics of our own mortality. I don’t know whether the idea of a “post-coronavirus world” is just a fashion among European intellectuals. But here, in a certain way, a world has ended around the idea of democracy and greater justice, especially following the betrayal that progressives have suffered. So, what strategies should be adopted when faced with people as cruel as those in power today? Creativity helps us think outside of the box.

In this context, has a specifically environmentalist political and intellectual expression taken root?

Some thinkers and artists have reached an international audience by drawing attention to the situation in the Amazon and what indigenous peoples are living through. Sometimes, symbols are important. So, for example, there was the influence of Pope Francis, who received indigenous chief Raoni at the Vatican in 2019. What struck people in Brazil was that Raoni and Pope Francis embraced one other, which was a departure from usual protocol. The political importance of the Pope in Brazil can be forgotten and this has focused discussions on the Amazon and the environment. The UN is an important institution. But the Vatican has a powerful symbolic influence. These global institutions now have rhetoric and practices that speak to Brazil. But there are questions to be asked about the responsibility of Brazilians in the face of these challenges. The meaning of the rhetoric has changed slowly and culture helps in responding to and participating in these debates. It has taken 30, 40 years to emerge, but it’s also the result of a daily fight.

If there are lessons to be learnt from the Covid-19 crisis that’s swept the planet, what would be the main political or collective decisions that you consider indispensable?

I think that we need open, educational debates and processes to understand what’s happening. We also need to end the hegemony of English in intellectual debates to finally give voice to other communities, who also have things to tell us. We have ways of living and thinking that are completely different. But the collective challenge is shared. How do we start a conversation about it?

I don’t know if the major international institutions can do this, but, as citizens of the world, we can do it and come together around this idea. This is what we have to put our effort and energy into. I’m not interested in what’s predictable. It’s what’s still to discover that’s important. We all have personal and institutional stories that should be told. From these shared stories, what can we think up in the way of dialogue, a meeting of minds, the cross-fertilisation of ideas, the next steps to take?

This article was first published in French by Etopia

Post-Covid Economy Beyond Capitalism

The corona crisis has made it extra clear that capitalism is only one way the market can take form. It can also be quite different. What follows is a plea for a post-corona economy in which the market is once again embedded in the community and can be better regulated by the state.

Adam Smith was optimistic about the possibility of curbing capitalism via the state and embedding it in the values and goals of communities. Karl Marx, on the other hand, simply did not believe that this was possible. Over the last decade, both economists have been proven right. The financial crisis of 2008 and the major recession that followed proved Marx right: unbridled capitalism allowed the financial sector to spiral out of control and drove bubbles into the housing market. The Covid-19 crisis proved Smith right: first, when markets implode, the state takes over and, second, a sense of community can lead to all sorts of initiatives, from help with grocery shopping to switching factory production to make masks to be sold at cost price. What exactly is capitalism anyhow, and how can it be distinguished from the market? According to both Smith and Marx, capitalism is a certain expression of the market and cannot be equated with the concept of the market itself. The market can therefore also be envisioned differently – for example in a post-capitalist economy, an economy that no longer displays the specific characteristics of capitalism.

According to both Smith and Marx, capitalism is a certain expression of the market and cannot be equated with the concept of the market itself.

Remarkably, most contemporary economists and politicians have forgotten the difference between the market and capitalism. The two concepts are often used interchangeably in parlance. What’s more, thinking in terms of capitalism is often confused with economics as a science – as if the whole of economics is dominated by market thinking or, worse, at the service of capitalism. This narrow view does not do justice to the economists who look beyond the mainstream and have a comprehensive knowledge of the classics. The rich history of economic thought can help elucidate the difference between the market and a specifically capitalist interpretation of the market. This analysis allows us to draw out some characteristics of a perfectly feasible post-capitalist market economy: a post-corona economy in which the market is once again embedded in the community and better kept in check by the state.

The market and the economy

The market is an efficient exchange mechanism for supply and demand. Market transactions are a win-win situation for both buyer and seller; they are both better off than without the swap. But there is a condition for that, as Nobel Prize winners Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu mathematically proved over half a century ago: every participant in the market must have sufficient resources that are in demand. That condition is by no means always met.

For example, John Maynard Keynes recognised that if more labour is offered than demanded during a recession, unemployed people may be willing to work for less than the market wage. Nonetheless, they will simply not be hired because companies will be unable to sell extra products due to a lack of consumer confidence or purchasing power. The labour surplus can therefore not be exchanged. This is why Keynes argued that, in a crisis, the government should create jobs and deploy its purchasing power in the market so that companies can produce more and employ more staff. The Covid-19 crisis has seen governments across the world take on this role on a large scale.

[…] the market is nothing more and nothing less than an exchange mechanism where mutually beneficial transactions can take place. However, those without purchasing power cannot participate in the market.

In developing countries, governments generally lack the necessary capacity for this strategy. Currently, Venezuela is desperately trying to cash in on its gold reserves and a record number of developing countries have knocked on the International Monetary Fund’s door for emergency loans. The development economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has explained the famine that he experienced as a child – not from a lack of food, but from a lack of purchasing power on the part of the poor landless population. Meanwhile, food was being exported to other states in India and even abroad, where there was a strong demand for it. A win-win situation for the exporting rice farmers in Bengal and the importers elsewhere, but starvation for landless farmers and unemployed workers.

In short, the market is nothing more and nothing less than an exchange mechanism where mutually beneficial transactions can take place. However, those without purchasing power cannot participate in the market. And without their own resources, such as land to grow their food on or to let out, they cannot earn a living. As a reaction to this, the state has partly begun to take on basic social services in modern times.

Lessons from Adam Smith

The market thus appears to be an efficient win-win mechanism only under certain conditions and thanks to state support. Even then, the market is often not optimal due to all kinds of market failures: negative externalities, rent-seeking (opportunism), moral hazard (misuse of incomplete information), and the inability to deliver certain public goods (such as healthcare and education for all) to name a few. These shortcomings imply that the economy must consist of more than just the market. And that is exactly what Adam Smith argued in 1776, in his famous book The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s lesson is that every economy is made up of three value domains: the market with exchange based on freedom of choice (provided that everyone has sufficient resources), the state with regulation and redistribution based on certain principles of justice (whether democratic or patriarchal or otherwise), and the domain of the community economy of the commons and mutual care based on what he called the value of benevolence. According to Smith, every economy consists of these three domains, each with its own values. That explains why certain goods or interactions fit into one domain but not into another. In the Netherlands, for example, payment for donated blood feels distasteful, and in the US it has been shown that such market transactions often lead to contaminated blood, unstable supply and higher costs. In the healthcare economy, voluntary blood donations are thus more efficient.

[…] the market is only an effective transaction mechanism […] if it is embedded in a local community in which people collectively provide a significant proportion of basic services

Two hundred years after Smith, economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi discovered and described this threefold division outside Europe as well. He too noted that the economy is much more than the market, and that the market is only an effective transaction mechanism – that is to say, an efficient way to achieve mutual benefit – if it is embedded in a local community in which people collectively provide a significant proportion of basic services, such as food, knowledge transfer, and basic healthcare. Polanyi also argued that the market is framed by all kinds of rules to prevent a few rich people or outsiders from appropriating community resources through the market mechanism. Hence, for example, the principle of common farmland for the cultivation of food for domestic consumption that is still used today in many African countries. Maintaining common land for food production is a smart way to build resilience in the food supply in case food prices rise or exports of cash crops such as coffee and cocoa collapse and foreign currency cannot be earned to import food. In short, the market can only contribute effectively to prosperity if each of the other two domains have room to function on the basis of their own values. It was not for nothing that Smith said that the function of the market for the state is to provide the government with sufficient tax resources. In doing so, he underlined the importance of good interactions between the three domains.

Historically, markets were the third domain of economic interaction – only important if there was something favourable to trade. For millennia, the bulk of prosperity was achieved in the first value domain, the care economy, comprised of the commons and mutual care. This includes jointly managed resources such as water for fishing and land for grazing, and mutual care and cooperation such as the cultivation of food and housing. Even today, this first domain still makes up a large part of our economy: think of domestic work, informal care, home production of food and clothing and volunteer work, as well as civic initiatives such as wind cooperatives. The second economic domain is that of the state, or formerly of authorities such as kings or chieftains. Those authorities determined what tenants or serfs had to produce, and they levied taxes, paid wages and issued recognised currency. Because the people had to pay their taxes in cash, they increasingly had to make money on the market in addition to their economic activities in the first domain of the economy.

Until the rise of capitalism, markets and money played a modest role in the economy. It was only when more goods were exchanged, more debts settled, and means of production appeared on the market that capitalism took off. In this way, labour markets, land markets (and with them the privatisation of community land) and financial markets came into being. Only with capitalism, therefore, did markets become increasingly important compared to the care economy and the state.

The market and capitalism: lessons from Marx

Marx wrote Das Kapital in 1867, almost 100 years after Smith’s publication of The Wealth of Nations, in order to understand capitalism as well as to lecture economists like Smith on their market-derived value theory of prices. Marx’s labour theory of value states that the value of every good is determined by the labour it contains, and also indirectly by the labour contained in the capital goods with which it is produced. This conception of value is the opposite of that of a capitalist enterprise. In a capitalist enterprise aimed at maximising profits, all other factors are paid first (material, labour, rent) and what remains is the profit, paid to the provider of the capital as a dividend. In other words, the capitalist receives what remains after deducting all of the costs, and in the event of a loss that is nothing. Marx swapped the roles of capitalist and worker in the remuneration of the factors of production. He argued that following the payment of the other factors, including a reasonable risk allowance for the entrepreneurship of the capitalist, the rest belongs to the labour factor. After all, this factor provides the work, meaning, collaboration, and creativity needed to make the product.

Only with capitalism, therefore, did markets become increasingly important compared to the care economy and the state.

Capitalism, according to Marx, consists of three elements, as can be read between the lines of his book. First, the asymmetry between capital and labour: the first factor always hires the second and not the other way around. Therefore, wage income falls and capital income gradually increases. Second, the reversal of the exchange chain: an ordinary market starts with a good that is exchanged for money that is then used to purchase another good. The win-win situation of exchange is therefore about the exchange of goods and not about the accumulation of money. However, a capitalist market begins and ends with money, whereby the exchange of goods, or securities, or anything else that can be monetised, is only a means. The far-reaching repercussions of this exchange are embodied today in Airbnb and Uber. The third element of the capitalist market is that, the dynamic between the first two results in companies growing progressively larger once they have a small head start or when they are simply lucky. They do so by taking over others and pricing them out of the market through economies of scale. As a result, any capitalist market, which starts with competition, ends in monopoly. In Marx’s time, this tendency was already happening on a regional scale. Today, we see it on a global scale with companies such as Unilever, Shell, Apple, and Google.

A post-Covid economy without capitalism

What we can learn from Smith and Marx is that a true post-capitalist economy, i.e. without capitalism, must have three characteristics.

First, more room for the care economy and the state, so that the market is more strongly kept in check and better embedded in society. The social objective, rather than accumulation for shareholders, takes priority. This also means a shift from linear efficiency through far-reaching specialisation, mass production, and a high degree of globalisation to complementary efficiency with synergy, resilience, and local employment. Take, for example, nature-inclusive agriculture and agroforestry, or the strong local economy of the English town of Preston after a severe recession.

Second, a post-capitalist economy requires enterprises without inequality between labour and capital. For example, cooperatives such as the in which the owners are also the workers (as with the Spanish Mondragon, which has over 70 000 members) or the customers (as with wind cooperatives). This would also apply to self-employed people united in bread funds who initiate start-ups that come much closer to meeting social needs, such as in the incubators at the old Philips site in Eindhoven. Or social enterprises rooted in communities, where profit is only a precondition for social impact. No money is thus leaked away to external shareholders.

[…] private ownership and accumulation are being replaced by a new type of commons, in which the material efficiency of goods is paramount from an environmental point of view, rather than efficient accumulation for a company or shareholder

Third, a post-capitalist economy needs markets that operate more locally, in which a need-fulfilling product or service is central, and money can just as well be a local community currency. There are numerous examples of successful community currencies that operate in parallel with official money. There are also LETS systems and timebanks in which people at a distance from the labour market provide services whose value is expressed in time, and for which they can buy a service themselves. Or markets where it is no longer about buying and selling goods, but about the rental and leasing of circular services. As a result, private ownership and accumulation are being replaced by a new type of commons, in which the material efficiency of goods is paramount from an environmental point of view, rather than efficient accumulation for a company or shareholder at the expense of equality, the environment and economic resilience.

What about the suggestions from economists for an improved version of capitalism? For example, Thomas Piketty’s higher wealth tax, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economy, or Joseph Stiglitz and Bas Jacobs’ proposals for the stricter regulation of oligopolies and the pricing of negative externalities? For the most part, these ideas can also find their place in a post-capitalist economy. But they will only be effective in the long term if the three Smith-Marx criteria are also met. Otherwise, after the Covid-19 crisis, capitalism will just run off with the market again.

This article was first published in Dutch by De Helling.

Passer au local: réformer le système alimentaire européen

Zéro déchet, zéro distance, zéro temps: les attentes des consommateurs changent et la nourriture devient une question de plus en plus politique. La menace de pénuries pendant la pandémie a montré que l’Europe doit commencer à produire, vendre et consommer de la nourriture d’une manière différente. Tous les chemins menant au changement du système alimentaire européen passent par la Politique Agricole Commune de l’UE. Nous avons discuté avec Linda Gaasch et Claude Gruffat des raisons pour lesquelles l’Europe a besoin d’un modèle plus juste et plus sain davantage centré sur les besoins respectifs des agriculteurs, des consommateurs et de l’environnement.

Green European Journal: La crise sanitaire a-t-elle changé nos modes de consommation ?

Claude Gruffat: Mon impression est que cette grave crise sanitaire et le confinement ont donné aux gens le désir absolu de pouvoir vivre à nouveau comme avant. C’est pourquoi, depuis le déconfinement, la consommation a repris de plus belle. Mais en même temps, la crise a élargi le cercle des éclaireurs du changement. Ce monde militant de l’environnement et de la consommation s’élargit : il représente en Europe, selon les pays, entre 5 et 10% de la consommation alimentaire. Les nouveaux enjeux de la consommation ont pris de l’importance. La question de la souveraineté alimentaire prend maintenant une place non négligeable dans le conscient des consommateurs, car ils réalisent qu’on n’est pas à l’abri de difficultés d’approvisionnement alimentaire.

Une autre préoccupation croissante des citoyens est la santé publique. Aujourd’hui, l’obésité, les maladies cardio-vasculaires ou les cancers environnementaux augmentent, et ne peuvent être dissociés de l’alimentation. Ce sont autant de portes d’entrée à des motivations de changement pour les consommateurs.

Quels sont les critères d’un changement de consommation ?

Linda Gaasch : Les gens se préoccupent d’abord de leur santé, avant de se préoccuper des effets néfastes sur l’environnement. Il y a effectivement un intérêt accru pour la consommation de produits locaux et provenant de l’agriculture écologique à court terme, cependant, sur le long terme, les grands-parents savaient beaucoup mieux que leurs petits-enfants quels sont les légumes et les fruits de saison et comment stocker la nourriture de façon à ce qu’elle se garde le plus longtemps possible. Ils ont vécu à une époque où ce savoir était primordial pour survivre, ce qui n’est pas notre cas aujourd’hui, et heureusement. Peut-être que la crise de la COVID19 aura comme effet secondaire que la population réalise que les pénuries alimentaires peuvent être possibles, et aura donc plus de respect pour le travail des paysans et plus de conscience des effets néfastes du gaspillage.

Manger sainement et acheter des légumes sans pesticides revient cher et la nourriture saine est trop souvent un privilège des plus aisés […]

Le fait de pouvoir accéder à une alimentation saine est également lié à la justice sociale. Manger sainement et acheter des légumes sans pesticides revient cher et la nourriture saine est trop souvent un privilège des plus aisés, alors que c’est tout la collectivité qui subit les conséquences de l’alimentation malsaine. Des coûts comme les frais de santé qui sont la conséquence d’une alimentation malsaine, la dégradation des sols qui est la conséquence d’une agriculture intensive, la pollution des eaux par de pesticides sont, en fin du compte, payés par la collectivité. Les pauvres payent donc doublement : d’abord avec leur santé, puis ils paient le choix politique du soutien à ce modèle agricole par leur contribution à la collectivité.

C’est tout le contraire que nous devrions faire : de la nourriture saine pour tous, subventionnée pour ses effets bénéfiques sur l’environnement et la biodiversité.

La crise sanitaire et ses conséquences ont suscité des appels à la régulation de la production dans plusieurs secteurs, comme l’industrie pharmaceutique, mais aussi l’alimentation. À quoi ressemblerait un système alimentaire plus résilient et durable en Europe ?

Claude Gruffat : Il faut maintenant parler de politique alimentaire, et non plus de politique agricole commune, pour remettre la notion de besoin au centre de notre alimentation. L’agriculture, c’est l’outil pour produire, ça passe après le besoin. Il faut remettre les choses dans le bon ordre.

Le modèle de distribution actuel influence fortement le modèle de production alimentaire. Le réformer est la clé pour un système alimentaire soutenable. Aujourd’hui, la distribution de masse via les hypermarchés nécessite un système de production de masse standardisée. Un hypermarché de 12.000 mètres carrés ne peut pas être approvisionné avec des producteurs locaux. En France, ce modèle est très bousculé : les très grandes surfaces sont remises en question à un point tel que certaines sont obligées de réduire leur superficie. Le gigantisme n’est absolument plus prisé, il est même rejeté par les consommateurs.

La production et l’approvisionnement en produits agricoles et alimentaires doivent être ramenés à taille humaine. Aujourd’hui, dans les réseaux de la grande distribution, un seul producteur de salade fpeut fournir un réseau de plusieurs centaines de magasins.

Ensuite, il faut relocaliser et remettre en place les filières locales régionales que l’agriculture a perdu avec quarante ans de PAC. Il faut remettre en route les groupements de producteurs, qui sont forcément territoriaux et pas nationaux.

Cette coopération peut être basée sur un co-développement gagnant-gagnant, qui fournisse les magasins et les consommateurs avec des produits alimentaires de qualité à des prix abordables. La production et l’approvisionnement en produits agricoles et alimentaires doivent être ramenés à taille humaine. Aujourd’hui, dans les réseaux de la grande distribution, un seul producteur de salade fpeut fournir un réseau de plusieurs centaines de magasins. C’est une prise de risque énorme pour le producteur, engagé contractuellement et à la merci de la moindre maladie ou d’un problème climatique, et c’est dangereux pour les magasins parce qu’ils se rendent dépendants d’un seul fournisseur. La notion de groupement et de collectif, évidemment dans un esprit coopératif, peut tout changer par rapport à la répartition du risque. C’est  indispensable pour relocaliser et réhumaniser notre production.

Quels sont les principaux problèmes de la Politique Agricole Commune et du système alimentaire en Europe, de façon générale ?

Linda Gaasch : Qu’est-ce qui ne fonctionne par aujourd’huit ? D’une part, les export subventionnés créent des effets pervers sur des marchés des pays tiers. D’autre part, les importations créent de la concurrence entre les agriculteurs en Europe. Les produits pour nourrir nos élevages sont souvent soit génétiquement modifiés, soit traités avec des pesticides qui ne sont pas autorisés en Europe. Tout cela s’ajoute au manque général de résilience et à une surdépendance à la production extra-européenne..

La priorité pour réformer la PAC st d’arrêter de subventionner la quantité pour mettre en valeur la qualité.

La priorité pour réformer la PAC st d’arrêter de subventionner la quantité pour mettre en valeur la qualité. Cependant, la réalité c’est que le nombre de fermes est en chute, et que  les terres sont de plus en plus concentrées dans les mains des grands producteurs. Le Conseil européen de juillet 2020 a retiré le fonds pour le développement rural affecté initialement à la PAC et, au niveau politique et institutionnel, je ne sais pas s’il y a assez d’engagement pour faire les changements nécessaires. Certains projets sont prometteurs, par exemple la stratégie de la Ferme à la Fourchette, mais si la PAC n’est pas en accord avec les orientations promises, il est difficile de voir comment une transition alimentaire et écologique est possible.

Claude Gruffat : Les méfaits causés par la politique agricole commune actuelle et ses conséquences sur la production alimentaire sont clairs : 50% de la surface agricole cultivée européenne est destinée à l’alimentation animale, et non à l’alimentation humaine. Comme c’est la quantité qui est subventionnée, on produit beaucoup de blé fourrager, mais pas de blé boulanger. Donc, en France, 70 % de notre farine à haute valeur boulangère est importée. C’est un exemple parmi tant d’autres.

A partir de là, dans quelle direction aller ? Vers la recherche d’une souveraineté alimentaire pour que les pays européenspuissent nourrir leur propre population. Les céréales, mais aussi les légumineuses et les protéagineux, sont une part extrêmement importante de ce processus. La PAC joue un rôle majeur pour l’avenir, parce qu’elle est un levier crucial pour donner  une orientation durable, saine et écologique à notre modèle agricole. La future PAC est une politique qui cible les productions dont on a besoin et qui favorise tout ce qui crée de l’emploi pour la fabrication de l’alimentation sur les territoires.

50% de la surface agricole cultivée européenne est destinée à l’alimentation animale, et non à l’alimentation humaine.

Ce ne sont pas juste des idées de laboratoire : les consommateurs aujourd’hui demandent de plus en plus de produits bio et locaux. Or, l’offre n’existe pas, elle n’est pas suffisante, alors que cette demande représente une formidable opportunité à saisir pour installer beaucoup plus d’agriculteurs, ce qui leur permettrait de vivre dignement et correctement de leur activité. Juste pour répondre aux besoins d’aujourd’hui, uniquement en France, il nous faudrait installer soixante mille paysans bio de proximité. Il y a environ 12 000 installations de paysans chaque année et 25 000 départs en retraite. La perte nette de paysans d’année en année amène à l’augmentation de la taille des fermes existantes, mais pas à l’installation de nouveaux producteurs. La France compte aujourd’hui à peine 500 000 paysans, mais en a besoin d’un million demain. La PAC et les politiques nationales de régulation et de fiscalité doivent jouer un rôle dans la réattribution de surfaces agricoles cultivables à de nouveaux producteurs.

La conversation politique est-elle en train de s’ouvrir pour aboutir à de nouvelles perspectives sociales, sanitaires et environnementales plus larges ? Par exemple, la Commission Européenne a proposé une stratégie de la Ferme à la Fourchette qui essaye de faire le lien entre ces différentes thématiques.

Claude Gruffat : Il y a les intentions, et il y a les actes. Les deux volets agricoles du Green Deal européen que sont les stratégies de la Ferme à la Fourchette et la biodiversité constituent une base prometteuse pour de nouvelles perspectives de moyen et long terme pour l’agriculture européenne, mais elles ne figurent absolument pas dans la réforme de la PAC initiée en 2018 et qui se concluera fin 2020. Le Conseil européen de juillet sur le budget pluriannuel de l’UE pour les années 2021-2027 a réduit l’enveloppe de la PAC, en particulier sur le développement rural, qui reste l’outil le mieux adapté pour investir dans le futur de l’agriculture et accompagner les mutations indispensables de notre modèle de production. La conversion politique passe par une relocalisation de l’agriculture. Les consommateurs posent les changements de demain, mais ne sont pas entendus. Parmi les signaux, on retrouve l’idée de « zéro déchet » : les consommateurs ne veulent plus que leur alimentation soit synonyme de suremballages. Le modèle de distribution est remis en question par le « zéro temps » : les gens ne veulent plus passer du temps dans les grandes surfaces. On retrouve aussi le « zéro distance », qui demande des courses de proximité. Tout ces éléments sont déjà présents dans la société, mais ne sont pas pris en compte dans les discussions politiques.

Beaucoup d’agriculteurs dépendent économiquement de pratiques qui nuisent à l’environnement. Par exemple, les dettes à long terme peuvent rendre très difficile le passage à des formes de production plus durables quand les revenus dépendent d’un certain rendement. Comment les écologistes peuvent-ils soutenir les agriculteurs dans ce changement ?

Linda Gaasch : Ma famille, qui possède une ferme, me dit souvent : « On nous parle des droits des animaux, mais rarement de nos droits à nous ». Peut-être que  les écologistes n’ont pas eu de voix assez forte dans la défense de les droits sociaux des paysans. L’agriculture conventionnelle est un travail difficile et comporte aussi certains risques à cause de l’exposition aux produits utilisés. L’agriculture peut aussi apporter des bénéfices pour le changement climatique et la biodiversité. Les écologistes peuvent pousser pour que la valeur du travail des producteurs agricoles soit reconnue et rémunérée.

Une bonne façon de convaincre les agriculteurs de venir sur le chemin du bio ou de l’agroécologie est un revenu garanti.

On a aussi besoin d’une vraie conviction sur un mode de production alimentaire précis, de se donner un but clair et de s’y tenir. Pendant des années les agriculteurs ont été sommés de se spécialiser, et maintenant ils doivent faire une transition vers le bio. Sans objectif clair, je comprends que ce soit difficile de comprendre et de s’adapter. Une bonne façon de convaincre les agriculteurs de venir sur le chemin du bio ou de l’agroécologie est un revenu garanti. Au niveau local en Luxembourg,les écologistes demandent un certain pourcentage de bio dans les cantines des écoles et des entreprises, pour que les producteurs locaux qui produisent bio aient la garantie de vendre leur marchandise.

Claude Gruffat : Les agriculteurs européens ont été embarqués il y a 70 ans dans un modèle d’agriculture qu’ils n’ont pas choisi. On leur a dit qu’ils devaient produire plus pour que leur pays soit en autonomie alimentaire, et que la solution était d’utiliser  la technologie et de recourir aux engrais chimiques et aux pesticides. À cette époque, on avait besoin de reconvertir l’industrie de la guerre en industrie agricole et personne ne parlait d’environnement, ni ne demandait leur avis aux paysans.Une des conséquences est qu’en Europe, entre 1965 et 2010, les fruits et légumes ont perdu entre 55 et 85 % de leur qualité nutritionnelle.

Comment emmener ces paysans vers un autre modèle ? Tous les agriculteurs aiment leur terre. On n’a jamais expliqué aux paysans qu’ils ont abîmé leurs terres et dégradé l’environnement depuis 40 ans. Aujourd’hui, ils en font un constat particulièrement amer. Je pense que les écologistes doivent avoir un langage d’accompagnement et d’affirmation d’un certain nombre de valeurs, et les poser comme cadre d’un projet social. Les écologistes doivent parler un langage de vérité à l’agriculture. Un langage de vérité, ce n’est pas la main invisible du marché alors qu’on sait où le libéralisme nous conduit. Nous devons établir un dialogue constructif avec tous les acteurs de l’alimentation dont, bien sûr,les agriculteurs, un échange qui ouvre des perspectives et redonne confiance en l’avenir. Il nous revient aussi en tant que responsable politique d’accompagner le changement par l’adaptation des politiques publiques et la mobilisation de moyens budgétaires. En procédant ainsi, l’Europe et la politique peuvent retrouver le soutien des paysans, aujourd’hui souvent désemparés, et d’un monde rural de plus en plus tenté par le vote extrême.

Les écologistes doivent parler un langage de vérité à l’agriculture. Un langage de vérité, ce n’est pas la main invisible du marché alors qu’on sait où le libéralisme nous conduit.

Quelle rôle les régions peuvent-elles jouer ? 

Linda Gaasch : Une idée qui me plaît beaucoup est d’avoir un réseau, à l’instar de ce qui existe pour le climat et l’énergie, pour mettre en réseau les agriculteurs des différents territoires pour échanger les bonnes pratiques en agroécologie. Même si les territoires fonctionnent différemment, ça ne veut pas dire que les échanges de bonnes pratiques ne peuvent pas être utile. De plus, le bail environnemental peut être un moyen pour les régions d’investir directement dans un système alimentaire durable. En Luxembourg, des terres qui appartiennent à la ville  sont conventionnées pour dix ans à des personnes qui peuvent les exploiter, avec certaines obligations environnementales. Si la ville possède des terres, il est primordial de soutenir des démarches vertueuses pour l’environnement.

Comment les régions peuvent-elles interagir entre elle ? 

Claude Gruffat : La relocalisation ne veut pas dire la fin des échanges entre les territoires. On fera toujours du Comté dans le Jura, du champagne en Champagne, de la mozzarella dans le centre-est de l’Italie. Le but est de territorialiser et de régionaliser les besoins alimentaires quotidiens, et de les faire le plus possible sur les territoires concernés. Les pommes de terre poussent partout en Europe, il n’y a donc pas de raison de faire des zones à pommes de terre et des zones qui n’en font pas, mais, au contraire, on a fait des zones concentrationnaires qui ont apporté des problèmes environnementaux

Pour une écologie décoloniale

Pour Malcom Ferdinand, les dégradations environnementales sont indissociables des rapports de domination raciale. Elles découlent de notre mode d’habiter la Terre, d’un sentiment de légitimité à se l’approprier. Au regard du passé, il nous revient de le réinventer.

Aurore Chaillou and Louise Roblin: On accuse souvent les activités humaines de l’ère industrielle d’être responsables des dégradations environnementales en cours. Or vous soulignez que cette manière de voir occulte les rapports de domination à l’œuvre depuis des siècles. L’imaginaire occidental de la crise écologique effacerait-il le fait colonial ?

Je suis loin d’être le premier à mettre en évidence le lien entre les inégalités sociales et les dégradations environnementales : c’est l’objet de l’écologie sociale, de l’écologie politique, de l’écoféminisme… Mais l’angle que je propose, lier ces questions au legs raciste, reste peu travaillé (sauf par les mouvements de justice environnementale).

Destruction de la nature et oppression sociale ont toujours été liées. Pourtant, dans l’appel à l’urgence climatique, on continue de voir des slogans dépourvus de pensée sociale. Cela permet à d’autres de s’approprier l’injonction environnementale et d’y donner une réponse technocratique : résoudre la pollution et le manque de ressources par la géo-ingénierie ou le marché carbone…

Malcom FerdinandVous faites remonter l’origine de la crise environnementale au XVe siècle, à l’époque de la colonisation…

Il y a eu plusieurs accélérations des dégradations environnementales (XIXe et XXe siècles en particulier), mais la crise écologique commence plus tôt que cela. Elle vient d’un certain mode d’habiter la Terre, une manière de se penser sur Terre en ayant la légitimité de se l’approprier pour le profit de quelques-uns. En partant des Caraïbes, je fais commencer cet « habiter colonial » à la fin du XVe, au moment où Christophe Colomb arrive en Amérique (sachant que le modèle de la plantation existait bien avant encore, par exemple à Madère).

Le racisme est une thématique presque complètement absente dans l’écologie politique française.

Il me semble que la Caraïbe occupe une place importante dans la modernité, parce que la rencontre violente des Européens avec lesdits Amérindiens coïncide avec le moment où le globe est « clôturé » : on peut faire une quantification des ressources disponibles sur la planète. Pour de nombreux auteurs, c’est là le début de la globalisation.

À l’Anthropocène, vous opposez le « Négrocène », qui s’appuie sur « l’habiter colonial ». Celui-ci est-il différent de l’exploitation capitaliste ?

La population qui a été exploitée pendant la colonisation n’est pas n’importe laquelle : si les paysans de l’Hexagone subissaient aussi des violences sociales, ils pouvaient toujours se sentir supérieurs aux Noirs. Le racisme est une thématique presque complètement absente dans l’écologie politique française. Sur ce point, je m’oppose à certains écomarxistes pour qui le capitalisme permet de tout expliquer ou qui prétendent que les inégalités sociales et le racisme structurel seraient une seule et même chose. Si la colonisation et l’esclavage furent aussi animés par des logiques capitalistes, ces processus reposèrent surtout sur une vision coloniale du monde qui invente une hiérarchie entre desdites races et entre différentes terres du globe.

Ainsi, à l’époque coloniale, les terres des Amériques furent subordonnées aux terres européennes. Elles étaient vues comme permettant de combler les désirs des actionnaires ; et ces désirs légitimaient n’importe quelle pratique. C’est ainsi que même les mesures de protection de la fertilité de la terre avaient pour but ultime de maintenir son exploitation. Ces dernières ont d’ailleurs été pensées, elles aussi, comme différentes des terres de l’Hexagone. On est dans un processus violent et misogyne, une manière terrible d’habiter la Terre portée par le colonisateur pour qui les autres humains sont déshumanisés, et les terres colonisées et les non-humains y habitant valent moins que ses désirs. C’est ce que j’ai choisi d’appeler « l’habiter colonial ». « L’habiter colonial » est une manière violente d’habiter la Terre, asservissant des terres, des humains et des non-humains aux désirs du colonisateur.

« L’habiter colonial » est une manière violente d’habiter la Terre, asservissant des terres, des humains et des non-humains aux désirs du colonisateur.

Tout un lot de discours et de pratiques justificatrices – faisant appel à la religion, la métaphysique, la loi, la culture… – est alors mis en place. En 1848, par exemple, la deuxième abolition de l’esclavage est, certes, une grande avancée politique et juridique. Mais on constate diverses inventions pour maintenir les esclaves dans les plantations et limiter le développement de la paysannerie. Ainsi, les propriétaires terriens, dont les terres devaient être des monocultures selon le mode colonial, ont perpétué un habitat colonial après 1848 : la mentalité d’appropriation et de hiérarchisation était inchangée. Et ce mode d’habiter, désormais pensable indépendamment de l’esclavage, a étendu ses pratiques dans d’autres lieux… C’est dans ce cadre que la culture de la banane, celle du ver à soie et de diverses mines se développent dans l’Empire français. Avec ces façons de faire, grâce auxquelles quelques-uns voient grossir leur compte en banque, vingt ans suffisent pour contaminer des terres pour plusieurs siècles et empoisonner plusieurs milliers de personnes. Mon travail m’a montré qu’on peut rester dans une lecture techniciste du problème environnemental. Une molécule est toxique ? On l’enlève du marché. Trop de pollution ? On régule, ou on apporte une solution technique. Mais les « subalternes » ne veulent pas seulement être décontaminés ni même recevoir justice pour un crime d’une telle envergure. Alors qu’aucune condamnation n’a encore été formulée cinq siècles plus tard, c’est d’un changement dans la manière dont les terres sont habitées qu’il s’agit.

Quand vous parlez des « subalternes », de qui s’agit-il ? Des personnes opprimées en général (les classes populaires, les femmes, les minorités sexuelles, etc.) ?

J’ai un usage assez libre du mot « nègre » (dans Négrocène par exemple). Les subalternes, ce sont les nègres des « plantations » d’aujourd’hui, quel que soit leur sexe ou leur couleur de peau. Si on a essentialisé le nègre en noir, c’est à partir de la langue espagnole, où les deux mots sont équivalents. Mais on ne peut pas dire que les Noirs sont les seuls qui ont souffert et qui souffrent encore des plantations. Les écrivains ont d’ailleurs été les premiers à désessentialiser ce mot (le « nègre » est celui qui fait le travail de quelqu’un sans être reconnu pour tel).

L’histoire de l’esclavage des Noirs a été longtemps ignorée en France ; elle est encore principalement pensée dans des rapports sociaux ou de genre. Mais on a du mal à voir en quoi elle est liée à l’histoire environnementale.

Le Négrocène attire l’attention sur tous ces êtres dont l’énergie vitale a été utilisée au bénéfice de velléités personnelles. L’histoire de l’esclavage des Noirs a été longtemps ignorée en France ; elle est encore principalement pensée dans des rapports sociaux ou de genre. Mais on a du mal à voir en quoi elle est liée à l’histoire environnementale. Or l’enjeu est de lier l’exploitation des corps à celle de la terre. Si l’on part du principe non moderne qu’il y a des continuités entre corps et écosystèmes, on comprend qu’une atteinte à l’un est une atteinte à l’autre. Ce prisme nous aide à entendre les révoltes comme une opposition à cet habiter colonial. Si le marronnage – le fait, pour des esclavisés, de fuir la plantation – occupe une place centrale dans mon travail, c’est qu’il est une autre manière d’habiter. Les Marrons font plus que s’opposer à l’esclavage : ils mettent en acte un autre rapport à la Terre et aux non-humains.

Quelles sont les conséquences de ce « silence colonial » aujourd’hui ?

Je vois une double difficulté. D’une part, il a fallu attendre le cent-cinquantenaire de l’abolition de l’esclavage pour penser une reconnaissance de ce qui s’est passé. L’esclavage n’est pas un sujet facile en France. Lors de séances de sensibilisation au racisme et aux esclavages dans les lycées, certains professeurs ne voulaient pas que je parle des Noirs… François Fillon illustre parfaitement cette mentalité lorsqu’il disait, en 2017, au sujet de l’enseignement de l’histoire coloniale, que la France n’était « pas coupable d’avoir voulu faire partager sa culture aux peuples d’Afrique ».
D’autre part, l’objet écologie s’est constitué de façon distincte du racisme. C’est d’ailleurs aussi une réalité que les militants écologistes sont majoritairement blancs (d’après leurs dires mêmes).

Je dirais donc que le silence colonial participe de la « double fracture » (fracture environnementale et fracture coloniale) et exclut en passant toute une partie de ceux qui habitent la Terre. Or les personnes issues de la colonisation peuvent aussi contribuer à penser l’écologie. En maintenant la croyance selon laquelle les personnes racisées ne sont pas intéressées par la question de l’écologie, l’on maintient, bon gré mal gré, une exclusion des personnes racisées et de leurs propres conceptualisations des sphères et arènes usuelles où se pense l’écologie. Cette exclusion nourrit en retour des méfiances de la part des racisés. Dès ses débuts, l’imaginaire construit autour de l’écologie efface la place et la parole des autres.

De même, la fracture coloniale minore les enjeux écologistes. Mon livre, Une écologie décoloniale, tente une passerelle entre les deux, car cela dessert les uns et les autres. Je cherche à montrer qu’il y a déjà eu des effondrements depuis 1492 et que beaucoup de collectifs ont déjà proposé d’autres rapports au monde. Leur parole a été invisibilisée, en tout cas dans le champ écologiste. Or c’est en continuant à n’écrire que des recueils de textes écologistes dans lesquels il n’y a pas un seul Noir que l’on véhicule le mythe d’une écologie qui ne serait portée que par des Blancs des pays du Nord et le mythe d’une absence de pensée écologiste des anciens colonisés et esclavisés.

Comment penser ensemble justice sociale, antiracisme et préservation des écosystèmes ? Est-ce que redéfinir le concept de nature peut permettre ce lien ?

L’eurocentrisme et l’occidentalocentrisme nous ont empêchés de voir d’autres cosmogonies. Ou, si on les cite, c’est de façon romantique : « Ah ! Si tout le monde pouvait faire comme les Guaranis ! » Or on ne peut pas célébrer leur manière de vivre sans reconnaître leur histoire et leur marginalisation sociale et politique. Chez les peuples premiers, les taux de suicide sont parfois dix fois supérieurs à la moyenne.

[…] il est urgent de faire de l’écologie une question du monde : dans quel monde voulons-nous vivre ? Il faut reconnaître les cultures et les couleurs, plutôt que d’aborder la question par la gestion environnementale, technique.

Il faut donc se laisser déranger par leur cosmogonie, sans oublier l’histoire de ces peuples et ce qu’ils demandent. Quels sont les termes que ces peuples utilisent pour revendiquer leur rapport au monde ? C’est ainsi que l’on sortira la justice écologique de sa double fracture. Parler d’écocide, par exemple, crée une nappe intergénérationnelle (on rattache nos actions à la vie de nos enfants, on assume une responsabilité pour l’après, on négocie celle de nos parents), mais cette nappe est pensée de manière environnementaliste, et non sociale et politique. Or comprendre que les destructions ont été possibles grâce à l’exploitation des peuples premiers, cela veut dire reconnaître la nécessité de justice pour ces peuples, tout autant que les demandes de réparation pour esclavage.

Les décideurs politiques et économiques actuels ont tout intérêt à continuer à occulter cette dimension coloniale…

En effet, il est urgent de faire de l’écologie une question du monde : dans quel monde voulons-nous vivre ? Il faut reconnaître les cultures et les couleurs, plutôt que d’aborder la question par la gestion environnementale, technique. C’est dans ce sens que je parle d’une « écologie décoloniale ».

Ce changement de paradigme ressemble fort à un changement d’imaginaire. Vous écrivez d’ailleurs votre livre dans un style presque littéraire.

Si j’ai pris des libertés littéraires, c’est afin de faire sentir les choses, et non pas seulement de les démontrer. Les historiens, s’ils se veulent scientifiques, donnent des chiffres. Mais une fois que l’on a ces éléments en mains, on n’est pas forcément prêt à penser et ressentir ce qui s’est passé. Mettre des noms sur les chiffres, retracer les trajets, voilà qui permet de faire de l’esclavage une histoire du monde et de la Terre.

« Toucher le monde », cela passe par les valeurs : l’amour, la justice… En particulier, si l’on demande comment faire monde après la colonisation et l’esclavage… La réponse n’est pas à trouver chacun dans son coin. Dans mon livre, je mets en scène des figures de fuite (quand on ne peut pas rencontrer l’autre), des figures de refus du monde pour l’autre, mais je parle aussi de ceux qui décident de rester à bord du bateau commun à tous les êtres. Car nous sommes tous dans le même bateau !

Mais, chez les écologistes, cette image est hantée par le récit de l’Arche de Noé. Michel Serres, par exemple, fait un usage des peintures et des images de l’Arche de Noé pour proposer une théorie politique de l’environnement : « Nous nous appelons tous Noé. » C’est un mythe de naissance de société, qui permet une théorisation du rapport au monde.

[…] dans les deux bateaux (l’Arche comme le bateau négrier), il n’y a pas de possibilité de faire monde. Je propose d’imaginer un navire-monde, peuplé d’humains et de non-humains, en tenant compte de l’histoire de chacun. Dans ce bateau, il n’y a personne dans les cales.

Mais l’Arche parle d’un processus de sélection que je considère comme violent. Par ailleurs, la focale est mise sur le processus d’embarquement : on ne sait rien sur la manière dont cela se passe à bord. L’usage politique qui en est ainsi fait me paraît problématique.

Pour ma part, je choisis de mettre plutôt en exergue le bateau négrier, parce que, si nous sommes dans le même bateau, nous ne sommes pas dans les mêmes conditions. Historiquement, la question de qui sera sauvé dans les populations noires des Amériques est douloureuse : on sait très bien qui sera sauvé et qui sera abandonné. Il n’y a qu’à regarder la Méditerranée pour comprendre. Aujourd’hui encore, la tempête climatique peut devenir une excuse pour ne pas vivre avec d’autres et pour construire des murs.

Cela dit, dans les deux bateaux (l’Arche comme le bateau négrier), il n’y a pas de possibilité de faire monde. Je propose d’imaginer un navire-monde, peuplé d’humains et de non-humains, en tenant compte de l’histoire de chacun. Dans ce bateau, il n’y a personne dans les cales. Tout le monde habite sur le pont.

Cette interview a d’abord été publiée en français dans Revue Projet.

Money, Power and Politics at the WHO

The World Health Organization has once again found itself in the spotlight in 2020. Protecting the world against the new coronavirus implies navigating numerous obstacles, from managing severely limited funds to placating the world powers that provide them. Fine van den Steen takes a look at the geopolitics that has shaped the WHO’s manoeuvring throughout the global coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes they’re too fast, sometimes they’re too slow,” is the echo which follows every epidemic. 10 years ago, the WHO overreacted to the swine flu, resulting in excessive medical costs. Four years later, with Ebola, its reaction was too slow and cost lives.

Both approaches were heavily criticised, confirmed a European diplomat to the United Nations in Geneva: “I am sure the WHO experts were not satisfied. But just because they’re dissatisfied does not necessarily mean that the director-general can openly express that.”

Whether the WHO was too slow or too fast in tackling the new coronavirus will become clear in the final report of an independent committee of inquiry, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR). This independent panel, under the leadership of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will examine the actions of both the WHO and its member states. A first interim report is expected in November 2020, and the final report is due in May 2021.

Reliant on goodwill

Following the fiasco with the SARS virus in 2003 and the realisation that increased globalisation can also lead to more epidemics, the WHO took action. In 2005, it updated its International Health Regulations (IHR) that are the basis for international collaboration in response to public health risks.

The IHR is a multilateral agreement between the WHO and its 194 member states that requires signatories to develop the capacity to detect, assess, and respond to acute public health risks. The agreement is binding but – as with most forms of international law – the WHO has neither the authority nor the means to enforce it. The assumption is that member states will pursue compliance because the consequences for failing to do so are disastrous: a high number of sick people and fatalities, a bad image, or exclusion by the international community.

As of 2020, no member state fully meets the requirements of the IHR. Nevertheless, it could have saved lives. Indeed, the regulation obliges countries to share information about any disease that could develop into an international health threat. Covid-19 was – and remains – such a threat par excellence.

“The only teeth the WHO has is ‘naming and shaming’ and international health law […]”

Some countries had fierce discussions with the WHO this year about closing international borders due to the coronavirus. That is because the IHR not only protects lives, but also the economy. The regulations thus stipulate that countries may not take measures that unnecessarily affect trade and transit.

Although the WHO’s “neutral” position should make it ideally suited to judge whether or not to close borders in order to contain a health threat, geopolitical interests play a strong role. Some countries, including the United States, unilaterally decided to close borders with China in January, although this went against the WHO’s advice.

“The only thing that the secretariat [of the WHO] did was to point out that countries had to report and account for travel restrictions according to the IHR”, explained the UN diplomat in Geneva. “The WHO gave an opinion on this and published it. WHO regulations do not prohibit such travel restrictions, although the opinion is interpreted as a condemnation. That is a nuanced difference. Perhaps the regulations here are too weak and instruments need to be created, but not within the remit of the WHO.”

“The WHO has a relatively small secretariat with a couple of thousand people and the budget of an average hospital”, continued the diplomat. 80 per cent of this budget comes from voluntary contributions, and the destination of most of these is earmarked by the donors. The United States government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are the biggest sponsors. “The only teeth the WHO has is ‘naming and shaming’ and international health law. That is all the WHO has. It has no coercive tools, and no power.”

The WHO has been left to depend on the goodwill of its member states, which is problematic when superpowers such as China and the US are flexing their muscles. “UN institutions are very quickly paralysed when there are major disagreements and diplomatic tensions,” added the diplomat.

Inconsistent information

On 14 January 2020, the WHO sent a now infamous and much debated tweet out into the world: “Preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus.” As a result, many questioned the seriousness of the virus.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore tightened border controls for passengers from Wuhan, China. These three pioneering countries remembered another coronavirus whose severity China had downplayed: SARS.

It was the eve of the Chinese New Year and the region was preparing for the biggest mass migration of the year. The Chinese government expected 440 million rail journeys and 79 million air journeys by the end of January. If the virus were to move with these travellers, it would spread at lightning speed not only within China, but also to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

But Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, was confident: China had been asked for more information and replied immediately on 31 December. Indeed, Tedros praised China’s cooperation and transparency and accused other countries of underestimating the information themselves.

“I was slightly embarrassed that [Tedros] had a little too much praise for the Chinese leadership,” said the diplomat in Geneva. “But to really go against China can be counterproductive, because you close communication channels.”

Tedros’ commendations stood in stark contrast to reports of media censorship and the arrest of doctors in China. The WHO was already aware of these challenging information flows, according to internal WHO documents made available to the US press agency Associated Press.

Those same documents explained that Tedros’ choice was also a strategy to entice China into providing information – like the fabled fox who steals the raven’s morsel of cheese by complimenting him so much that he eventually opens his beak and drops it. “A director-general of the WHO cannot be too harsh on a member state, and certainly not one like China or America”, explained the diplomat.

The concern about Covid-19 was of course real, as the Chinese doctor Li Wenliang also testified. He was one of the first whistleblowers to state the dangers of the virus, one of the first doctors to be arrested, and he eventually died of the disease. On his deathbed he reportedly said: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

Chinese scientists engage in self-censorship in order to avoid reprisals from Beijing. At the same time, the regime actively censors and slows down the flow of information. Former WHO Secretary-General Gro Harlem Brundtland experienced this in 2003. When she discovered that China was withholding information about the new SARS virus, she publicly reprimanded Beijing. Brundtland paid the price for her bold behaviour, as cooperation with the aggrieved People’s Republic proved difficult from that time onwards. With that in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising for Tedros to choose the carrot rather than the stick at the beginning of 2020.

Money is power

Tedros’ praise of China may also have echoed his loyalty to the country. The word in Geneva is that “Dr Tedros was elected [as WHO director-general in 2017] with Chinese support.” That same year, China expressed its ambition to increase its influence on the United Nations, “and we are already feeling that” (keeping in mind that the WHO is one of the UN’s specialised agencies).

 “China has become much stronger”, said Gro Harlem Brundtland in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “Anyone who now openly criticises the country […] runs the risk of China’s withdrawal.”

“The WHO has a relatively small secretariat with a couple of thousand people and the budget of an average hospital”

Taiwan experienced this back in 2016. Their newly elected government was not well received in China, which is why Taiwan lost its observer status at the annual WHO meeting. Incidentally, Taiwan is not a member of any UN organisation because, according to Beijing’s One-China policy, it belongs to China. Taiwan’s independence is therefore not recognised by China, nor by those countries that do not want to challenge China.

It was precisely this growing influence of China on the WHO that the US took umbrage at, causing President Donald Trump to withdraw his funds. Covid-19 triggered this decision which fits in perfectly with the US’s “America First” attitude.

In recent years, Washington has withdrawn from several UN organisations and international conventions. In fact, it had already warned the WHO about its lack of transparency in the run-up to the elections of the new director-general in 2017. Moreover, the US and China were at odds even before the pandemic, as the trade wars and public muscle flexing demonstrate.

[…] the departure of the US may also lead to a reshaping of influence in the WHO.

The fact that the US has withdrawn its money is a serious drain on the World Health Organization. Nonetheless, according to the diplomat it appears that “US influence on the WHO is still strong.” It is reassuring that Trump’s successor can reverse the decision before the departure goes into effect on 6 July 2021. And even if Trump is re-elected in November, hope lies with other organisations that can fill the financial gap, such as the newly established WHO Foundation.

However, the departure of the US may also lead to a reshaping of influence in the WHO. Trump denounces the growing influence of China, but when the WHO was set up it was the Soviet Union that withdrew from the organisation because of the excessive influence of the US. At that time, the US provided a third of the WHO’s budget. Today, the amount is only 15 per cent.

Geopolitical rumblings

Tedros has stressed that the coronavirus should not be misused to score political points. But the political undertone had already been set before the epidemic broke out.

Politicians around the world reacted according to existing fault lines. Republicans and Democrats in the US express their political colour by whether or not they wear a mouth mask. Northern European member states prioritised their own interests over solidarity with Southern European countries which were harder hit by the pandemic, something which was compounded by their already weaker economic position.

The flow of medical supplies perpetuated and severed geopolitical relations. Italy and Serbia, for example, blamed the European Union for not coming to their aid, whereas China did reach out to them. With China and Russia supplying relief to other countries in need, the Chinese propaganda mill also scored domestic political points. Even the demand for independent research was politically echoed in trade wars, such as the sudden increase in import duties on Australian barley.

However, just like the post-war American aid from the Marshall Plan, Chinese support also has a political agenda. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative mega-project will not only be a worldwide network of trade and transit, but also one of debt and power. China’s flow of corona aid seems like a foretaste of the health trajectory of the New Silk Road.

[…] just like the post-war American aid from the Marshall Plan, Chinese support also has a political agenda.

“All roads should lead to universal healthcare”, Tedros announced back in 2017, a sentiment he reiterated on 18 June 2020. A partnership between the WHO and China seemed like a good idea to him. As the Ethiopian Minister of Health (2005 to 2012) and Foreign Affairs (2012 to 2016), Tedros was familiar with Chinese policy. Beijing regards Ethiopia as the gateway to East Africa, and the country is thus an important stop on the New Silk Road. China is not only Ethiopia’s most important trading partner – it is also its largest foreign creditor. Chinese loans account for half of Ethiopia’s national debt. It was precisely this combination of ministerial posts that made Tedros the perfect candidate for WHO chief in 2017.

The counterarguments were dismissed as smear campaigns by the opposition. In response to the accusation that as Minister he had concealed cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia, Tedros replied again and again that these were “cases of acute watery diarrhoea”. He referred to issues in the authoritarian regime that he had served, which had a poor record for respecting human rights, as the “teething troubles of a young democracy”.

Moreover, Tedros enjoyed the support of Asia and Africa, respectively led by China and the African Union (which was then chaired by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe). Shortly after his election, Tedros appointed Mugabe as the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador, and China as a partner for universal health care. He withdrew the first of these decisions under international pressure due to the dictator’s atrocities. The second decision will have proved troubling this year.

China today, another power tomorrow

“There are political sensitivities that states do not respect, which prevent them from showing their best side,” explained the UN diplomat. “This prevents scientists from doing their work and hampers scientific organisations.”

Across Europe, there is an awareness of the high politics that plays out in the United Nations. In Belgium, the conclusion that the power of UN institutions is limited was voiced in May in the Foreign Policy Committee of the Flemish Parliament, during an “exchange of views” on managing the corona crisis: “The WHO cannot defend itself. It is a membership organisation in which the Member States have the last word.”

“[…] the Flemish government continues to take a critical stance with regard to China’s role and demands clarity about the origin of the pandemic.”

The same committee expressed that: “a confrontation with Beijing would have cut off access to essential information from China […] That does not alter the fact that the Flemish government continues to take a critical stance with regard to China’s role and demands clarity about the origin of the pandemic.” This clarity must be provided by the independent committee of enquiry.

Too fast or too slow? This crisis also shows that the goodwill of member states, rather than effective instruments, determines the rhythm of the WHO. The room for manoeuvre is limited due to tense geopolitical relations and a tight budget. In this way, the WHO dances a pernicious tango between health, economics, geopolitics and diplomacy. Today with China, tomorrow with another superpower.

This article was first published in Dutch in MO* Magazine.

Going Local: Reforming Europe’s Food System

Zero-waste, zero-distance, zero-time: people’s expectations are changing and food is an increasingly political issue. The threat of shortages during the pandemic showed how Europe needs to start producing, selling and consuming food in a different way. All roads to changing Europe’s food system run through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. We spoke to Linda Gaasch and Claude Gruffat on why Europe needs a fairer and healthier model centred on the needs of farmers, consumers and the environment.

Green European Journal: Has the coronavirus crisis changed how people consume? 

Claude Gruffat: My impression is that overall this severe public health crisis and lockdown have given people a firm desire to be able to live life as they did before. This is why consumption has increased where lockdowns have been lifted.

At the same time however, the crisis has widened the circle of trailblazers for change. The world of environmental and consumer activism is growing: in Europe, it accounts for 5 to 10 per cent of food consumption, depending on the country. New issues around consumption have become prominent. Food sovereignty now occupies a significant place in consumers’ minds because people are realising that we’re not immune to food supply problems. Another growing concern among the citizenry is public health. Today obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and environmental cancers are on the rise and this cannot be separated from food. For consumers, these connections are gateways to a desire for change but the shift will be gradual and will have to be supported.

What needs to happen for society to shift to more sustainable forms of consumption?

Linda Gaasch: People worry about their health first, before worrying about harmful effects for the environment. In the short term, interest in eating local and organic products has increased. However, over the long term, grandparents know much better than their grandchildren which fruit and vegetables are in season and how to store food so that it keeps for as long as possible. They lived through an era in which this knowledge was vital for survival, which isn’t the case for us today, fortunately. Maybe a side effect of the Covid-19 crisis will be that people realise that food shortages are possible at some point, and so have greater respect for the work of farmers and greater awareness about waste. 

[…] healthy food is too often a privilege enjoyed by the well off. At the same time, everyone suffers the consequences of unhealthy food.

The fight for healthy food is also a social justice issue. Eating healthily and buying pesticide-free vegetables is expensive; healthy food is too often a privilege enjoyed by the well off. At the same time, everyone suffers the consequences of unhealthy food. Costs such as health issues caused by poor diet, soil degradation caused by intensive agriculture, and water pollution caused by pesticides are borne by the community. So the poor pay twice: they pay with their health and they pay for the political choice that supports our current farming model. We should be doing the opposite: ensuring healthy food for all, subsidised for its beneficial effects on the environment and biodiversity.

The coronavirus crisis and its consequences have led to calls for tighter regulation of various industries such as pharmaceuticals, but also food. What would a more resilient and sustainable food system look like in Europe?

Claude Gruffat: We need to talk about food policy, rather than the common agricultural policy, to put the idea of need back at the heart of what we eat. Agriculture is a tool for production – it comes after need. We need to put things back in the right order.

The current distribution model strongly influences food production. Reforming it is key to a more sustainable food system. Today, mass distribution through supermarkets requires a standardised system of mass production. A 12,000-square-metre supermarket just can’t be supplied by local producers. In France, consumers are increasingly rejecting this model. Large superstores are being called into question to the point where some have been forced to downsize. Size is no longer everything.

The production and supply of agricultural and food products should happen at a human scale. Today, in supermarket retail, a single salad producer may supply several hundred stores.

Farming lost its local and regional supply chains through 40 years of the Common Agricultural Policy and these need to be rebuilt. We need to return to producer groups that are local, not national. This cooperation can be based on win-win co-development that supplies shops and consumers with quality food at affordable prices. I’ve seen this myself in the Biocoop network, which now has a 1.4 billion euro turnover.

The production and supply of agricultural and food products should happen at a human scale. Today, in supermarket retail, a single salad producer may supply several hundred stores. It’s an enormous risk for the producer, who is contractually bound and at the mercy of the slightest disease or climate problem, and it’s risky for shops because they depend on a single supplier. But producer collectives or cooperatives can change everything by sharing the risk. It’s essential if we want to return to local production on a human scale.

What are the main problems with the Common Agriculture Policy and Europe’s food system more generally?

Linda Gaasch: What’s not working at the moment? On the one hand, subsidised exports create perverse effects in the markets of thirds countries. On the other, imports create competition between farmers in Europe. The products used to feed our livestock are often genetically modified or treated with pesticides that are banned in Europe. All this adds to a general lack of resilience and an overdependence on production located outside Europe.

The priority for reforming the CAP should be to stop subsidising quantity and emphasise quality.

The priority for reforming the CAP should be to stop subsidising quantity and emphasise quality. However, the reality is that the number of farms is shrinking and land is increasingly concentrated in the hands of big producers. The European Council in July 2020 removed the rural development funds initially earmarked for the CAP and, at a political and institutional level, I don’t know if there is enough commitment to make the necessary changes. Some EU plans, such as the Farm to Fork strategy, are promising but if the CAP doesn’t line up with the new directions promised, it is hard to see how an ecological transition for food is possible.

Claude Gruffat: The harm caused by the current CAP and its consequences on food production are clear: 50 per cent of European farmland is used to feed animals rather than humans. Because quantity is subsidised, wheat is grown for feed, not bread. So, in France, 70 per cent of our high-value bread flour is imported.

Where do we go from here? Towards food sovereignty to make sure European countries can meet their own, human, needs. Cereals, legumes, and protein crops are extremely important to this process. The CAP holds a key role for the future because it is the crucial lever to move our agriculture in a sustainable, healthy and green direction. The future CAP is one that targets the production that we need and encourages anything that creates jobs in producing food locally.

These aren’t just think-tank ideas: today consumers are increasingly demanding organic and local products. But the supply isn’t there, it’s not enough, even though this demand presents an incredible opportunity to set up many more farmers so that they can earn a decent and fair living from their work. Just to meet demand today in France alone, we need to 60 000 new local organic farmers. While what happens is that about 12 000 farmers enter the industry each year and about 25 000 retire. The net loss year-on-year increases the size of the remaining farms and is not encouraging new farmers to start out. France has barely 500 000 farmers today but needs a million for tomorrow. The CAP and national policies on regulations and tax systems must help in the reallocation of arable farmland to new producers.

[…] 50 per cent of European farmland is used to feed animals rather than humans. Because quantity is subsidised, wheat is grown for feed, not bread.

Is the political conversation opening up to include broader social, health and environmental perspectives? For example, the European Commission has proposed a Farm to Fork strategy that tries to tie together these different strands.

Claude Gruffat: There are intentions, and there are actions. Two agricultural strands of the European Green Deal – Farm to Fork and biodiversity – are promising foundations for new medium- and long-term approaches to European agriculture, but they are nowhere to be found in the CAP reform that started in 2018 and that will be concluded in late 2020. July’s European Council meeting on the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027 saw a reduction in the CAP’s budget and, in particular, rural development, which is the best tool for investing in the future of farming and supporting essential changes to our production model.

The ongoing political shift requires the relocalisation of agriculture. Consumers are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s developments and they aren’t being heard. One of the signs is the idea of “zero waste”: consumers no longer want their food to be synonymous with over-packaging. The distribution model is challenged by the idea of “zero time”: people no longer want to spend any time in supermarkets. There is also the idea of “zero distance”, which calls for buying local. All these things are already found in society but aren’t taken into account in political debate.

Many farmers are financially dependent on practices that are damaging to the environment. For example, long-term debt can make it very difficult to switch to more sustainable forms of production when your income depends on a certain yield. How can Greens support farmers in making the switch?

Linda Gaasch: My family, who own a farm, often tell me: “People talk about animal rights, but never about our rights.” Perhaps Greens have not been loud enough in defending the social rights of farmers. Conventional farming is hard work and also carries certain risks because of exposure to the products used. Agriculture can also bring benefits for climate change and biodiversity. Greens can push to make sure that the social value of farmers’ work is properly recognised and remunerated.

A good way of convincing farmers to head down the organic or agroecology path is a guaranteed income.

We also need genuine belief in a particular food production model, to set a clear goal and stick to it. For years, farmers were told to specialise and now they have to transition to organic production. Without a clear goal, I understand why it’s difficult to grasp and adapt. A good way of convincing farmers to head down the organic or agroecology path is a guaranteed income. At a local level in Luxembourg, the Greens are calling for a certain percentage of food in school and company canteens to be organic, so that local organic farmers are guaranteed buyers for their produce.

Claude Gruffat: 70 years ago, European farmers adopted an agricultural model that they didn’t choose. They were told that they had to produce more so that their countries would be self-sufficient in food, and that the solution was to use technology and turn to chemical fertilisers and pesticides. At the time, we needed to convert war industries back into agricultural industries, and nobody was talking about the environment. Nor was anyone asking the opinions of farmers. One of the consequences is that between 1965 and 2010, fruit and vegetables produced in Europe lost 55 per cent to 85 per cent of their nutritional quality.

How can we lead these farmers towards another model? All farmers love their land. We’ve never explained to farmers that they have damaged their soil and harmed the environment for 40 years. Today, they are coming to this particularly bitter realisation. The Greens must use language that is supportive, upholds certain values, and frames this in terms of a social project. Greens must speak a language of truth to agriculture. A language of truth isn’t the hidden hand of the market, because we know where neoliberalism leads us. We must establish a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders in food production and, of course, with farmers, a dialogue that opens up opportunities and restores confidence in the future. It is also up to political leaders to support change by tailoring public policy and providing financial resources. In this way, Europe and politics can regain the support of farmers who today often feel disempowered and a rural world increasingly tempted to vote for extremists.

Greens must speak a language of truth to agriculture. A language of truth isn’t the hidden hand of the market, because we know where neoliberalism leads us.

What role can regions play?  

Linda Gaasch: I would like to see a network – similar to those that exist for climate and energy – to connect farmers in different regions with each other so that they can share best practices for agroecology. Although different regions work in different ways, it doesn’t mean that sharing best practices can’t be useful. What’s more, environmental leases can be a way for regions to invest directly in a sustainable food system. In Luxembourg, land owned by the city that is leased for 10 years to people to work with certain environmental requirements. If a city or region owns land, it is vital that it supports approaches that are virtuous for the environment.

Claude Gruffat: Relocalisation doesn’t mean the end of trade between regions. Comté cheese will always be made in the Jura, champagne in Champagne, mozzarella in central Italy. The goal is to localise and regionalise everyday food needs, and to do this as far as possible in the areas concerned. Potatoes grow everywhere in Europe; there’s no reason to have areas that grow potatoes and areas that don’t but, instead, we’ve created areas of concentration and that has brought environmental problems.

Relocalisation means sharing things out again while preserving and strengthening regional identities. There’s a real wealth that regions and their communities must seize upon, as it is they who can drive local food projects that match their skills. Europe and the regions are complementary levels for discussing these policies: the European framework sets the direction and provides the resources; the regions use them intelligently within their borders. That’s how we can give citizens what they need.

Taking Back Control: The Future of Public Services

From Barcelona to Grenoble, towns, cities and regions are reclaiming democratic control over vital services like water and healthcare. We spoke to Transnational Institute researcher Lavinia Steinfort about how, contrary to decades of received wisdom, reversing privatisation results in more accessible, accountable and cost-effective public services. Seen from the midst of a pandemic, municipalisation offers a route through the crisis towards more environmentally and socially just societies.

Green European Journal: Since the mid-2010s, cities, towns and regions have been reclaiming public services and putting them under democratic control. How has the trend progressed?

Lavinia Steinfort: All over the world, citizens, public authorities and labour unions have been mobilising to bring vital services and infrastructure like water, energy, healthcare and education back into public hands. We call this remunicipalisation. It’s not just privatised services brought back into public ownership: many local governments are creating new public services for the first time, such as health services.

At the Transnational Institute, our recent research identified 1408 cases of remunicipalisation involving more than 2400 local authorities, all new and previously unknown. This included at least 142 cases of newly created or remunicipalised public services that improve public health. For example, since 2010 the state of Selangor in Malaysia has offered a Women’s Health Scheme which provides free mammograms to women over 35 years old and subsidises healthcare for low-income households. In 2015, the Chilean commune of Recoleta in Santiago set up the country’s first popular pharmacy, selling medicines up to 70 per cent cheaper. Three years later, the country counted 40 new public pharmacies.

Remunicipalisation most often takes place in the energy, water and waste sectors. Ever since the mid-2000s, the accelerating climate crisis – as well as the energy transition movement in Germany – has led to many reclaimed energy networks and new public energy supply companies. In France, the water remunicipalisations in Grenoble in the early 2000s inspired many other municipalities across France and beyond to reclaim their water services. In 2017, over 100 Norwegian municipalities took public control over their waste collection after the bankruptcy of waste management company RenoNorden.

Why are more and more places opting for municipally run services?

Remunicipalisation is a strategic response to a failing private provider that puts profits over social and environmental concerns. In most cases, remunicipalisation happens as concessions to private companies expire. In countries with centralised systems, such as Greece or Poland, where local authorities generally have relatively little power and resources, reclaiming public infrastructure may not be an option. However, in countries where decentralisation took place – often going hand in hand with reduced local budgets – many towns and cities made deals with private providers who promised lower costs and higher efficiency. But soon it became clear that the opposite was true. Through these concessions, private companies often created more problems than they solved, causing price hikes, job cuts, worse labour conditions and failing to deliver on promised investments. This meant higher costs for local authorities who had to step in every time a private operator failed to perform. Over the years it became clear to many local authorities that these private deals compromised public service quality, accessibility, and value for money.

Remunicipalisation is a strategic response to a failing private provider that puts profits over social and environmental concerns.

Finally, as the pandemic and other crises have shown us, the more striking the flaws of privatisation become, the greater the call for democratic public ownership. For example, during this pandemic the so-called creeping privatisation of the UK’s National Health Service has led to its failure to adequately and effectively test healthcare personnel as well as the general population. This has contributed to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

Many cases of remunicipalisation take place in the energy sector. How can remunicipalisation be a means to move to a cleaner energy system?

Indeed, most instances of remunicipalisation occur in the energy sector, with a rise of almost 20 per cent in cases between 2017 and 2019. TNI research found that tackling the climate crisis, for example by switching to renewable energy and reducing CO2 emissions, was a key motive to remunicipalise a public service in roughly a third of cases. This trend reflects how difficult it will be to curb the climate crisis whilst allowing private operators to compete over profits from energy services and infrastructure. Public authorities are better positioned than multinationals to prioritise long-term ecological concerns over short-term financial considerations.

To give a couple of examples, in 2018 the Bulgarian city of Dobrich remunicipalised its street lighting. The city replaced 1500 old light bulbs with energy efficient LED units, cutting electricity consumption by 47 per cent. The city also retrofitted 71 municipal buildings and 41 residential apartment blocks, providing the 2400 families living there warmer homes and savings of 30-60 per cent on their energy bills. In Burgas on the Black Sea coast, a retrofitting programme (financed by the EU, the national government, and municipal budget) made 300 residential buildings and a growing number of municipal buildings more energy efficient. This lowered energy bills by 30 per cent and improved quality of life. The design of the plan also allowed for feedback from residents to ensure it was working well.

TNI research found that tackling the climate crisis […] was a key motive to remunicipalise a public service in roughly a third of cases.

About 3000 kilometres to the west, the governing citizen platform Barcelona en Comú created the energy retail company Barcelona Energia in 2018 to buy energy directly from renewable sources. It is partly directed by a participatory council that is open to users and citizens’ groups and is authorised to submit proposals on the strategic direction of the company, give input on issues like tariffs and investments, and help shape education policies. The new public company supplies the municipal buildings and can serve up to 20 000 households. It also provides energy to residents in precarious housing situations, including those without documents, and pressures private energy companies to do the same.

Is remunicipalisation also helping communities in the Global South to confront the climate crisis?

Many communities in the Global South have already been on the frontlines of the climate crisis for a long time. The local governments of Dumangas, Gerona and Siargao in the Philippines have created climate schools to help farmers and fishing communities monitor weather changes and adjust practices accordingly, leading to an increase in local rice production. The Filipino city of Lanuza created a disaster risk reduction and rehabilitation unit to improve its socio-environmental resilience by using a comprehensive framework that takes into account the whole ecosystem – forests, watersheds, and mangroves – and the livelihoods that depend on it, while specifically prioritising the needs of women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

How does remunicipalisation relate to politics at the national level? Does it reflect that progressive forces are out of power in most places?

Remunicipalisation relates to national level politics in multiple ways. On the one hand, there’s a lack of vision, ambition, coordination, and budget allocation from national governments on tackling the climate crisis and excessive inequalities. In many places, progressive forces are out of power because they moved closer to the neoliberal and racist right. As a result, many political activists have turned to the municipal level in order to transform society from the ground up, which has led to a thriving and flourishing movement for new, progressive municipalism across Europe. On the other hand, these localised struggles for transformation are neither confined to the local nor happening in isolation.

As long as we are governed by a liberalised market monopolised by competitive energy oligopolies, smaller, greener, and more democratic initiatives are likely to lose out […]

Across Spain and its autonomous communities, it’s clear that municipalist groups – both within and outside of the corridors of power – that act and organise for a fair, clean and democratic energy transition are very well connected. The Platform for a New Energy Model, for example, advocates for a new socially and environmentally fair energy model on all levels by dismantling the energy oligopoly – which is not only impeding the transition but also responsible for growing levels of energy poverty. One part of this conversation has been about deprivatising and democratising the regional power distribution networks. But since these privatisations are not based on concessions that have an expiration date, as is the case in Portugal and Germany, this move can only happen on the national level. With Spain now ruled by a coalition between leftist parties PSOE and Podemos, now is the time to pressure the government to replace privatisations with an energy infrastructure that is fully public, deeply democratic, and committed to collaboration.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that local energy remunicipalisations will have to translate into reclaiming and restructuring energy systems at the regional, national, and international level. International and country-wide coordination is clearly necessary to achieve a global energy transition. As long as we are governed by a liberalised market monopolised by competitive energy oligopolies, smaller, greener, and more democratic initiatives are likely to lose out, as we’ve seen in Denmark and Germany.

What about the European Union? Is it an obstacle or an enabler of democratic control of public services?

The European Union has been a persistent driver of liberalising and privatising public services. The liberalisation of the EU electricity market started as early as 1996, and the Service Directive of 2006 enabled an overall liberalisation of the EU-wide services market. Between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission reportedly pressured member states 63 times to cut spending on healthcare or privatise or outsource health services. In 2018, Corporate Europe Observatory uncovered that the European Commission was pushing for the Service Notification Directive. This is expected to even further curtail the decision-making powers of municipalities as it would require local governments to notify the Commission about new laws and regulations – and wait for its approval. This could threaten plans that might interfere with the profits of public service privatisations. Whilst this was postponed due to differing opinions among heads of state in the European Council, the launch of the Single Market Enforcement Action Plan in March 2020 showed the Commission’s continued commitment to the Service Notification Directive.

The European Union has been a persistent driver of liberalising and privatising public services[…] Between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission reportedly pressured member states 63 times to cut spending on healthcare or privatise or outsource health services.

Moreover, the role that the European Commission and the European Central Bank (together with the International Monetary Fund) played in overriding Greek sovereignty, impoverishing its people, and selling out its public assets to accommodate financial creditors, shows how the European Union can be an obstacle for protecting and promoting democratic public services. Without concerted pushback, such injustices are likely to reoccur.

Across Europe and the world, big cities seem to be booming while small towns, rural and suburban areas struggle with service cuts and economic decline, which has often been linked to political disenchantment. Can reclaimed public services revive local economies and our faith in democracy?

Reclaiming public services provides a host of opportunities to make local economies thrive. They can rebuild the democratic fabric of a community and redistribute wealth and resources, ensure that local resources are invested and reinvested in the area, reduce utility bills for those struggling to make ends meet, and tap into people’s creative capacities by generating meaningful employment and involving people in decision-making processes. One model can be seen in the many new broadband services across the United States, such as publicly owned Community Network Services in Thomasville, Georgia, which has helped support small businesses and a thriving downtown area.

The municipal heating plant in Hostětín, Czech Republic, is another example. Since 2000 their new biomass plant, which uses waste wood from nearby sawmills, has been providing 85 per cent of the village households with heat. Notwithstanding the many ecological concerns around biomass, overall pollutant emissions dropped to 6 per cent of their original levels, the heating price is two-thirds of the national average, new jobs were created, and a significant amount of resources and money now remain within the region.

The general mission of a public service is to care for the population; when they are privately owned or managed, people’s rights to live in dignity come after private profiteering.

In 2013, the British city of Plymouth helped create the Plymouth Energy Community, a community-based cooperative, to tackle energy poverty and reduce carbon emissions. Its green energy arm – PEC Renewables – funds, installs and manages local schemes for the generation of renewable energy. By 2019, it had allowed over 20 000 households to save over 1 million pounds on bills and had helped the city produce enough clean electricity to supply 2 000 homes. Its expected lifetime revenue of 1.5 million pounds will be reinvested in initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and tackle energy poverty in Plymouth, which affects up to 30 per cent of some districts of the city.

Many public services in cities depend on surrounding areas for resources such as water, energy, and waste management. Can a new approach to public services contribute to changing the relationships between urban areas and their hinterlands?

Public services are often underpinned by some kind of natural or constructed infrastructure – be it ground water sources, energy grids, or postal zones – that spans a larger area. Public ownership can be a powerful instrument to foster solidarity across different districts, for instance by reinvesting the surplus of urban areas in more rural parts of the region or by changing regressive tariffs into progressive ones so that those who use less also pay less.

Especially in the water, energy, and transport sectors, we see remunicipalisations happening on the inter-municipal level. The city of Nice in France remunicipalised its water services in 2013, after which many neighbouring municipalities joined the new public water company Eau d’Azur. The main motivation for the city to reclaim its water was to put the principle of “territorial solidarity” into practice. By 2016, 80 per cent of its metropolitan population received water from Eau d’Azur.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how critical public services are to all our lives. It has also brought about an economic collapse and a shutdown just when the climate movement seemed to be making some progress. Does remunicipalisation offer a strategy for getting out of this crisis in an environmentally and socially just way?

Reclaiming public services on the local, regional and national level can definitely help governments and societies as a whole to recover from the pandemic and to emerge from it more equal, resilient, and democratic. The general mission of a public service is to care for the population; when they are privately owned or managed, people’s rights to live in dignity come after private profiteering.

Remunicipalism can help make services work for people and ensure that the transition to a greener economy happens in a just way.

Public services are also known for their limited carbon footprint. So, publicly owned essential services can align social and environmental policy goals, such as lower fees for residents and universal access to better working conditions, more capacity for community wealth building, increased investment, better value for money, and new measures to tackle the climate crisis. We should be careful not to not let our governments repeat the mistakes of the post-2008 financial crisis era, which replicated the disastrous policy recipe of austerity, cuts in public spending, and the selling off of public assets that was already widespread in the Global South. This would only worsen the recession, increase already skyrocketing levels of inequality, and result in more suffering.

Instead, we should use tax mechanisms as well as public budgets, public procurement, and public investment to reduce our reliance on extractive industries such as destructive mining, speculative finance, mass tourism, and non-essential consumerism. We can go even further – calling on governments to share decision-making powers with public service users and workers to truly turn public actors into democratically organised and value-driven forces for change. This pandemic has highlighted our reliance on strong public services, and the climate crisis is accelerating. Remunicipalism can help make services work for people and ensure that the transition to a greener economy happens in a just way.

Pandemic Politics and the Lithuanian Elections

The tug of war between Lithuania’s traditional parties broke down definitively in 2016 with the victory of the Farmers and Greens. But their support has declined since as answers to social and environmental problems have been lacking. Amid the ongoing pandemic and in the shadow of events in neighbouring Belarus, the elections in October may yet be another turning point in Lithuanian politics.

Changes to the political landscape during the first post-Soviet decade followed the same pattern in most Eastern European countries, and Lithuania was no exception. After the spectacular success of the Singing Revolution, the national reform movement Sąjūdis, which skillfully guided Lithuania to independence in 1990, was completely defeated in just two years. Former Communists – smart and far-sighted enough to abandon the highly compromised branding – assumed a more attractive and neutral label, becoming the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP) and winning the 1992 elections. More importantly, amidst rising inflation and economic hardships of early transition, their programme seemed to promise a more realistic and balanced form of social welfare than their ideological opponents could offer. However after four years of LDDP’s rule, self-appointed successors of the dissolved Sąjūdis movement regrouped themselves into the Homeland Union (Lithuanian Conservatives). This force won back the parliamentary majority in 1996 and ran the government until 2000.

In the two decades that followed, Lithuanian politics became more complex. No party on the Left or Right has held on to power for more than one term, nor won an outright majority. The internal dynamics of the LDDP and the Homeland Union became intense. Members regularly left in droves to join or establish new parties. Some of these new “non-traditional” forces persisted while others saw electoral failures and were swept away. Generally speaking, no more than three or four large political parties dominated Lithuania’s changing political scene throughout the 2000s and 2010s. The old rivals – the Homeland Union and the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (the post-Communist LDDP and the Social Democrats merged in a timely decision in 2001) – were the two largest competitors until quite recently when a striking number of new political parties emerged and performed strongly despite lacking historical roots or firm ideology.

No party on the Left or Right has held on to power for more than one term, nor won an outright majority.

The reshaping of the political landscape continued even more dramatically after 2010 as populism grew and the formerly polarised electorate became fragmented and less stable in its choices. Programmes of “traditional parties” became indistinguishable from one another and, in some cases, even contradicted their party’s values and aims. The Lithuanian Conservatives began to eschew liberal rhetoric after Gabrielius Landsbergis – the grandson of renowned political old-timer and independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis – became the chairman of the Homeland Union. As the party’s identity changed, many older members of the Homeland Union were disappointed. Some left, while others opposed Landsbergis junior’s leadership and stances.

After several impressive comebacks in the first two decades of post-Soviet transition, the Social Democrats also began to lose support in the 2010s. The death of their iconic leader Algirdas Brazauskas – a former Communist and a major player of the reform era who served as both president and prime-minister – saw followers turn away. His heirs lacked the same charisma and ability to manipulate voters. Many people considered Brazauskas as a “guarantor of stability” and turned a blind eye to his past as high-ranking Soviet official. Successive Social Democrat leaders could not impress new generations of voters in the same way, even if younger people are less concerned about the roots of this political party than their parents.

The ascent of the Farmers and Greens

Thus Lithuanian politics started to change profoundly. The results of the 2016 elections were in many ways stunning. Against expectations, the comparatively new (the original Farmers party was established 30 years ago but had remained a minor force) Farmers and Greens Union spectacularly won 59 seats in the parliament. The Conservatives meanwhile managed to secure no more than 20 seats. The Farmers and Greens became the largest party and formed a government in coalition with a few smaller left-leaning parties.

Lacking a prominent national leader (the chairman of the party Ramūnas Karbauskis is an industrial farmer and was not a public figure before entering politics ), the Farmers and Greens Union adopted a populist choice in appointing a prime minister from outside their ranks. Saulius Skvernelis – a plain and otherwise unimpressive transport engineer-turned-traffic policeman who rose through the ranks to become the general police commissioner and eventually minister of interior – was chosen to lead the new government. He was an outsider but brought high ratings and was top of the candidate list for the elections.

The reasons for his popularity are quite difficult to grasp. An unimpressive public speaker, Skvernelis was a notable and popular figure while leading the national police and running the ministry of the interior. His political career almost collapsed during an infamous incident in Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius when an arrested suspect escaped from a police car, stole a Kalashnikov machine gun, and was only located and cornered the next morning.

Hundreds of police officers were summoned to track the potentially dangerous fugitive. Meanwhile, the then Minister of Interior Skvernelis remained asleep until the early hours. Speaker of Parliament Loreta Graužinienė made an emergency call to Skvernelis’s private house only to learn that the politician in charge of law enforcement saw no reason to disturb his rest. Curiously enough, this much-publicised case did not ruin Skvernelis’s reputation.

The fact that the [Farmers and Greens Union] is dominated by industrial farmers, such as its chairman Karbauskis, rather than green activists or seasoned environmentalists makes them quite vulnerable […]

After losing the 2019 presidential race to current president Gitanas Nausėda, Skvernelis duly resumed his duties as prime minister. On several occasions, however, he used his powers to disobey the president. In one notable instance, he refused to fire Jaroslavas Narkevičius, the compromised transport minister. Yet the prime minister’s reputation remained untarnished even as the Farmers and Greens Union became a target of heavy and ongoing criticism.

The Farmers and Greens Union began to lose public support and media backing shortly after winning the 2016 parliamentary elections. This decline had many causes: prices were on the rise, corruption remained rampant, and no social programmes had been implemented. Rapid deforestation continued unabated and the resignation of several top officials at the environment ministry from 2017 to 2019 – including the minister, his deputy, and the chancellor of the ministry – point to the mismanagement of “green” issues.

This record begs the question of how green are the Farmers and Greens? It must be admitted that the environmental credentials of the Farmers and Greens union were and continue to be rather poor. Though their programme contains references to a “cohesive society”, “harmony between humans and nature”, “healthy local food”, and the “application of principles of a healthy life into the educational system”, they remain rather vague. The fact that the party is dominated by industrial farmers, such as its chairman Karbauskis, rather than green activists or seasoned environmentalists makes them quite vulnerable as far as environmental and climate questions are concerned.

The politics of Lithuania’s Covid-19 response

In recent years, support for the ruling Farmers and Greens Union has continued to decline, as have the ratings of their leaders. The leader Ramūnas looks more like a back-seat driver than a prominent politician, unlike smart Skvernelis who maintained much higher levels of public support. However, Covid-19 turned the situation on its head.

In the eyes of many, they [Skvernelis and Veryga] had master-minded a successful pandemic response and their ratings rose accordingly.

The government’s reaction to the threat of the virus was delayed, and in many ways, clumsy. Hospitals were poorly equipped and lacked face masks, not to speak of the sophisticated equipment needed for intensive care. Local hospitals, including some large university hospitals, were badly hit. After several medical doctors contracted Covid-19, wards at several hospitals had to be closed and the heads of healthcare institutions exchanged fierce public messages with the health minister. Health minister Veryga was entrusted with leading the overall effort to control the pandemic. After some hesitation and confusion, lockdown measures were finally applied nationally, border controls were put in place, and emergency measures were introduced. Horrified by reports of the collapse of the healthcare system in northern Italy as well as the growing spread of the virus, Lithuanians stayed home until measures were officially relaxed. When the lockdown measures were finally relaxed early summer, many people breathed a sigh of relief.

Leading the response to the pandemic allowed Veryga to dominate the mass media and consolidate his public image. He made statements at all hours, occasionally donning a paramilitary uniform when announcing new public safety measures. The number of Lithuanians who have contracted the virus is relatively low in comparison to other European countries. Skvernelis and Veryga have pronounced this low case count a success of the government’s skillful and timely management of the health crisis. In the eyes of many, they had master-minded a successful pandemic response and their ratings rose accordingly.

October elections and events in Belarus

The political map is becoming increasingly colourful as the number of parties vying for seats grows ahead of the elections in October. The ongoing crisis in Belarus is providing an excellent opportunity for some Lithuanian politicians to strengthen their reputation in the run-up to the vote. Foreign minister Linas Linkevičius has kept himself in the news by hosting Sviatlana Cichanouskaya, the Belorussian presidential candidate who fled repression in her home country. Some informed experts, such as former Foreign Minister and Former Ambassador to Belarus Petras Vaitiekūnas, have repeatedly warned in the media that Vladimir Putin controls the Belarussian issue and it is the Kremlin that ultimately decides whether Lukashenka stays or leaves. Vaitiekūnas was extremely reserved while discussing the role of Cichanouskaya, characterising her more as a symbol of Belorussian democracy rather than a real leader with national and international support. Notwithstanding expert opinion, many Lithuanians have taken a far simpler approach to events in Belarus and hailed the dawn of democracy there.

Looking back on previous elections, one must be cautious when forecasting the fortunes of parties in the upcoming elections. Political scientist Lauras Bielinis has recently emphasised that the largest Lithuanian parties – Conservatives, Social Democrats, and, to a certain degree, Liberals – all have good chances of gaining a significant number of seats. He notes, however, that left of the centre, a growing number of parties compete over a set of disillusioned voters and that the Farmers and Greens Union have been the main benefactors in recent years.

Notwithstanding expert opinion, many Lithuanians have taken a far simpler approach to events in Belarus and hailed the dawn of democracy there.

Though trust in the Farmers and Greens has eroded, it is unlikely that their rivals will win over their left-leaning centrist supporters. The “war against the virus” rhetoric is a winning one and will only strengthen their campaign. They seem to also understand that any partial lockdown would dramatically reduce their chances at the polls. Thus although a second wave of the pandemic looms, lockdown measures remain somewhat relaxed, despite the rhetoric from some government officials. The current policy will most likely be pursued until the elections are over before more austere measures are introduced. Though the green sheen of the Farmers and Greens has worn off, they have good chances of remaining a political force that will eventually form a coalition government.

A few smaller values-based parties have growing odds of entering parliament. The Lithuanian Greens – a party established in 2011 – has grown slowly yet considerably. Despite lacking a charismatic leader, the Greens have advanced a well-designed and attractive programme that emphasises ecology, circular economy, natural resources, phasing out nuclear energy, energy security and efficiency, and rethinking the future of cities. Compared to the vague slogans of a “sustainable” and balanced way of life from the Farmers and Greens, their agenda looks far more advanced and full of potential.

Another recent political grouping – the right-wing National Association led by philosopher and former Sajūdis activist professor Vytautas Radžvilas – could also cross the parliamentary threshold. This small yet publicly visible party is gaining attention by insisting on political reform, demanding more grassroots democracy and accountability, highlighting growing emigration and immigration, and stressing the importance of national identity and human values. Often accused of nationalism, Radžvilas and his followers have exposed numerous ills of the current political system in Lithuania as well as the European Union as a whole.

The upcoming elections offer little reason to anticipate major shifts. But, for Lithuania to face its growing concerns and global uncertainties, some essential changes to the current political system are badly needed.

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