Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Review - Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale.

Having just reread Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale I feel compelled to review it as it is such as classic of decentralism. As has been said before it is ironically very large, over 500 pages, considering the title but this should not put off potential readers as it is crammed full of explanations, anecdotes, and a lot of information and statistics of great interest to any avid decentralist and most casual readers besides.

Sale splits the book up into several parts including one on the problems being inflicted on our centralised, large scale world and one each offering glimpses of decentralised solutions for the social, economic and political spheres. He covers areas such as decentralised government for various community levels, renewable, small scale energy production and workplace democracy.

The book is well written and enjoyable for a work so encyclopedic and packed full of information. The solutions offered are usually quite sensible and there is something for all stripes of libertarian and decentralist even is Sale tends to write from a broadly left of centre position.
One negative is that my copy was published in 1980 and hence many of the statistics and some of the information is getting somewhat dated, but that is more a call for new decentralist material and should not detract too much from the worth of Sale's book.

In summary it is an encyclopedic work of the Human Scale movement and despite being 30 years old is still a necessary read for all committed decentralists.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Where next for Labour?

It has been quite some time as I've been very busy but finally I've got around to writing a new post for my blog; a rumination on the future of the Labour party.


It seems clear now by that Labour is heading for a wipeout and we are facing the rather unpalatable prospect of Conservative party rule again. On the bright side though hopefully there is a good chance the New Labour project will die with Brown's government.

The question is then where should Labour go from there? Particularly of interest to us decentralists; where could it go in our direction?

Personally I think it needs to go backwards but not just to the old labour of the 70s when the communists struggled for control of the party with the moderates. No they need to go further back than that, even further than Atlee and the triumph of Welfare Statism. They need to go back to those intellectual fathers who once meant so much to the fledgling party, those British thinkers who once meant so much more than German communists and Thatcherites to Labour.
In particular they need to rediscover three key British Labour thinkers.

Firstly they need to rediscover the political and economic works of that radical Tory, John Ruskin. As strange as it seems now he was a major influence on the beginnings of the Labour party as well as on the likes of Tolstoy and Gandhi. According to the introduction of my copy of his seminal [I]Unto this last[/I] it was this book which, as Clement Atlee retells it, was the favourite political and economic influence on the first 30 or so Labour MPs to reach parliament who were given a survey to complete on the subject.

In his works on political economy Ruskin set out his views on such things as value, dignified work, the right organisation of labour and wealth. He makes some extremely keen insights and Labour would do well to recall his importance. He reminds us of the need for dignified work rather than drudgery, and for the need to make sure the power to direct labour, or wealth, is used and not abused. His work emphasises the need for a more decentralised and satisfying economy where the quality is more important than quantity and the satisfaction of the worker in daily toil is as important as the consumer's.

Secondly Labour really needs to go back to the works of R.H Tawney, a name not well known now but who was once an important stalwart in certain quarters of the British labour party. He was famous within it for such works as the Acquisitive society and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism . In these works and particularly in the Acquisitive society he stressed two important ideas as Peter Etherden has emphasised:

Tawney had two big ideas. The first was the idea that society should be organised for the performance of duties rather than the maintenance of rights. This led to the idea that industry and banking should be organized as professions. The other was intrinsic in his analysis of the nature and proper function of property and led to far-reaching and incisive attacks on 'functionless property' and 'divorcing ownership from use'...attacks that went far beyond the ideas of either Marx or Proudhon and echoed Gesell.

In Tawney's view his two big ideas were related. He begins his discussion of 'property and creative work' in 'The Acquisitive Society' with the words: 'The application of the principle that society should be organised upon the basis of functions...offers a standard for discriminating between those types of private property which are legitimate and those which are not'. Nowadays most economists have learnt to discriminate between 'goods' and 'bads' in our gross national products, but if Tawney had his way, they would also be distinguishing between property and 'improperty'. 'Property,' exclaimed Tawney, 'is not theft, but a good deal of theft becomes property'.

He emphasised the importance of linking rights to functions or duties and therefore called for the removal, gradual or quickly, of functionless property and the organisation of industry in order to produce things of quality and provide worker satisfaction and goverance. This links him with the old labour idea of more producer control while also emphasising the need for community input.

He was therefore an important decentralist thinker even if he wrote little specifically on scale as he realised the need for human scale control and satisfaction in dignified work and the Labour party which has so long been into corporatism and centralised bureaucratic control coulb learn a lot from this past master.

Finally Labour could learn a lot by rediscovering another key early influence; the guild socialist and Fabian thinker G.D.H Cole.

Cole is perhaps the most decentralist of all these three figures. He was a pluralist through and through. He believed that individuals needed greater control over their existences but also realised the key place of association in the life of individuals. He emphasised that many of the functions of the state and industry could be broken up and federative, decentralised, largly self-governing associations could take their place from the block to the workshop.

In many ways he shared the recognition of intermediate association common among many Conservatives from at least Burke onwards as well as pluralist liberals like De Toqueville and of course the social anarchists like Kropotkin.

His influence could be very positive on Labour by drawing their attention to the importance of intermediate associations particularly those that are decentralised, participartory and democratic and helping them to rediscover the importance of function in the goverment of state and industry.

So it can be seen that Labour has within its own history three thinkers that could push in a new, refreshing direction making it a proper alternative to the Conservatives and bringing back some decentralism and diversity into the bleakness of modern British politics.

Will it do it? Of course not.