Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

What progress looks like

We started out with four feet of skin care; today it’s twenty feet. Today we don’t have deodorants, but someday down the road we will have deodorants in China. Five years ago perfumes were not a big business here. But if you look today it’s the emerging market … there’s a lot fewer bicycles, so that takes away from the exercise side of it, so people are getting larger, so what’s that tell you? Sales of exercise equipment’s getting good, exercise wear, jogging outfits, and at some point, we’ll have Slimfast and all those type of products.

Joe Hatfield, CEO of Walmart Asia, on PBS Newshour, 2005.

The women of rural India are not meek – and we do not help them when we pretend that they are

women farmers in UP

The meeting started off with a comfortable simplicity. In a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, a  group of semi-literate women greeted the visiting development professionals with garlands and tikas and food. A song was sung, the visitors were thanked. Then the subject changed to a complicated scientific assessment of fertilisers and pesticides, and the conversation became one-sided. The development professionals were completely unable to keep up.

Asked to picture in their mind a group of expert agriculturalists, few see women like these, the backbone of farming across India. India’s rural women are imagined as meek souls who accept their allotted role. It is a myth, but a powerful and harmful one.

In our discussions in Uttar Pradesh I was reminded of the determined struggle which women are conducting for equality. “We are not farmers’ wives, we are farmers.” They spoke of how their group had helped them to raise their incomes. “And guess what I got with the extra money?”, one woman asked me. I thought she would say something pious. “These anklets!” she announced proudly. Brilliant. In the development myth of the Indian and global establishment, women’s groups exist primarily to “help families through women”. And it is true that helping women helps everyone. But that narrative boxes in women’s own stories, pride and strength. Women’s empowerment is needed primarily because women should have more power. It is not a tool.

“So what does the group do?” I asked. There were, of course, stories of how improved farming techniques and working together helped them boost earnings. And there the myth of the meek rural Indian woman would have concluded the story, in a depoliticised market where women’s hard work combined with innovation enables women to escape poverty without ever confronting what holds women back. But the story the women told was rooted in power, and rights. Only 6% of women in Uttar Pradesh have their own land. Almost all of those who do are widows or have no brothers. Only 3% of women have joint title to land with their husbands. “We want the land in our name as well as our husbands. The  government charges a huge duty on anyone who transfers land to joint ownership. We’ve got thousands of signatures from husbands agreeing to transfer if it is without government charge. But the government has not yet unblocked it. So we march. We will march until we get our land. We marched to demand access to rural extension services. The government used to offer agricultural training only to men. Women only got offered classes in making pickles! Now we have been guaranteed one third of places on all training schemes. We are demanding half.”

They were clear that their empowerment requires government action, and clear that government should work for them. It is the 66th anniversary of India’s freedom this week, and they want their freedom too. They are demanding that government provides loans, irrigation and changes in the rules on land title. They want universal access to public services too: “When services are targetted, in the end the muscle men get them all. To reach the poor, services must be universal, that’s the only way that we won’t be prevented from using them. The rich must share with the poor. If only one person keeps all the food then only one stomach is filled. How can that be right?”

“Do women in the UK have equality at work?” they ask me. “They earn less,” I admit. “Aren’t they allowed out?” “They are.” “They go out and they still earn less?”

“Mahila bhi kisan hai! – Women are farmers too!” they shout, not seeking mere improvement but demanding equality. The group was initially inspired by the example of a Gandhian activist called Vinobha Bhave, who led a land campaign in a the 1950s. He was a determined but gentle man. He rejected confrontation. He would ask landlords to give, appealing to “the little goodness in their hearts”. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. He kept on. The women I met in Uttar Pradesh have all of the determination of Vinobha Bhave. I am happy to report, however, that they are a little less gentle.

On course for 3.6 – 5.3 degrees Celsius

A little earlier in the summer, the International Energy Agency published an excerpt from the forthcoming 2013 World Energy Outlook. Included in it was their latest calculation of the global average temperature increase that current policies put us on track for: a long-term rise of 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius, most of which will kick in before the end of the 21st century.

So have we lost for good the chance to limit warming to 2 degrees C? A lot of people in the climate process privately think so. But there’s also a general sense that whatever happens they mustn’t say so publicly, lest it contribute to a sense of hopelessness and despair.

This ambiguous stance will be much on show over the next couple of years, in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate summit at which countries are supposed to agree their targets for 2020 onwards.

It’s far from certain that the deal there will even include numbers on emissions at all (at least if the last meeting of the Major Economies Forum is anything to go by) – but what does seem certain, according to everybody involved, is that even if numbers are included in the deal, there’s no way they’ll add up to 2 degrees.

Instead, the focus will be on setting up a mechanism for ratcheting initial pledges up through a regular review mechanism – allowing policymakers to say that the door to 2 degrees still remains open, if only just. In other words, everyone gets to keep pretending that we’re doing something about the issue, and the UNFCCC circus goes cheerfully on.

As for emissions, they’re still rising, according to the IEA – by 1.4% last year in the case of energy sector CO2 emissions, taking us to an all-time high. We’re still creating the problem a lot faster than we’re solving it.

Still, one idea doing the rounds that gives a small iota of hope for the future is the notion that when countries offer up their voluntary emissions reduction pledges, they should at least make clear their reasoning about (a) the overall level of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere that they’re aiming for, and (b) what level of action they assume that everyone else is doing.

That’s interesting, because it opens up the whole issue of fair shares – and could start pushing countries to talk more openly and seriously about the issue of equity in global carbon budgets. Maybe.

Last of the White Russians

File:Wrangel Peter.jpg

Occasionally an item of news reminds us of how transient most great political dramas are, and how quickly major crises come and go.  This is rather healthy: it puts us on notice that most of the issues we care about very deeply will be forgotten fairly soon too.  This is certainly the effect of a compelling obituary notice in the New York Times (emphasis added):

BASILEVSKY–Nathalie (nee Wrangel), 99, of Cos Cob, CT. Beloved mother of Peter A. Basilevsky and the late Helen A. Basilevsky, grandmother of Alexis P. Basilevsky and Katharine H. Deering and two great-grandchildren. She died peacefully on August 9, 2013. She had a big heart, a sharp intellect and will be missed by all who knew her. Mrs. Basilevsky, born in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last surviving child of Lt. Gen. Baron Peter N. Wrangel and Olga M. Wrangel. She was predeceased by her husband Alexis G. Basilevsky, sister Helene Meyendorff and her brothers Peter and Alexis Wrangel. Baron Wrangel was the last Commander in Chief of the White Army in the Russian Civil War and who, after a long and valiant struggle despite his army being woefully outmanned and undersupplied, engineered the seaborne evacuation of approximately 150,000 soldiers and civilians, including 7,000 children, from the Crimea in November 1920 in the face of overwhelming advancing Bolshevik forces.

It’s worth remembering that the Russian Civil War was a close-run thing. If the White Army had been better-manned and better-supplied, we might be mourning the loss of a rare human link to a late, great White Russian (pictured above).  And “Stalin” would mean nothing to us.

Kissinger: when you don’t have a foreign policy, talk about development!

Micah Zenko of CFR has just blogged this transcript of a 1975 telephone call between Henry Kissinger and his long-time aide Winston Lord on the knotty problem of what to say about Africa in an upcoming speech:

KISSINGER: Are you redoing the African thing?

WINSTON LORD: Yes. We had versions which is in the front office and we are redoing it some more. You can look at what you have [or?] wait for what is in the typewriter now. It will not be tremendously different. We gave you a draft about two days which was bounced back.

K: It was not much.

L: We don’t have much of a policy.

K: What would be a policy?

L: That it is, I think, it is sober, restrained…

K: I don’t mind giving them what our intentions are. It is not always possible to do a hell of a lot.

L: Right. It is our lowest priority, but it cannot say that. But it is a fact of life.

K: We can say something about forthcoming aspirations.

L: You mean for development.

K: Right.

According to the full transcript, Kissinger goes on to say: “See if you can give it a little more lift without promising them much more.”  Of course, no policy-maker would ever be so cynical about development policy these days…

It’s getting clearer and clearer we’re in an inequality crisis – so why am I optimistic?


We are not living in an age of austerity. We are living in an age of brutal inequality. Millions struggle to feed themselves and their families – even in Europe. But the men who caused the financial crisis are better off now than they were the day before the crash. Five years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the firm’s former bosses are back running Wall Street. Amazon, apparently, can’t afford to pay tax where it makes its profits, can’t afford to let its workers take too many toilet breaks, but can afford for its boss to buy the newspapers that might have criticised it. We are back to the “bauble economy”.

The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest. Zambia has become a middle income country, but the number of poor people in Zambia has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. 5% of Indians own 50% of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, “nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top 1%. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” In the UK, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.

There are so many reasons why rising inequality is a bad thing that it’s hard to know where to start. One reason, as Andy Sumner has demonstrated, is that “we find in our number-crunching that poverty can only be ended if inequality falls.” Another is that healthy, liveable societies depend on government action to limit inequality: “In physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries,” note Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also a question of voice, and power. In the words of Harry Belafonte, “The concentration of money in the hands of a small group is the most dangerous thing that happened to civilization”. Or as Jeff Sachs has noted: “Corporations write the rules, pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

So if inequality is so damaging, and if it’s getting clearer and clearer that we’re in an inequality crisis, why I am optimistic? Because we are talking about it. Because people are saying it’s a problem. Because in a counterpoint to how the neoliberals of the 70s and 80s changed the conversation from community to individualism to break the post-war consensus that had limited inequality, so now the conversation is shifting back to community. People are challenging the idea that “economic shock treatment” cures when it literally kills. They are speaking out against the profit maximisation mantra that corporations should behave in ways which we would call psychopathic in normal human interaction.

When problems are invisibilised they cannot be fixed. It is only when we look eyes wide open and say frankly that our emperors are naked and that we do not want them as our emperors any more, that we have a chance of putting things right.

In short, I am optimistic because it is getting clearer to the majority that unrestrained inequality is bad for us all. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I see change as inevitable, only in the sense that I see it as possible. It is not that now we needn’t campaign against inequality. It’s that now, when we do, we might win.


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