The English education system is built on value judgements. Measures of provider quality, qualification currency and student achievement create a web of rankings which shape our view of the system, and the resulting hierarchies impact how everyone feels about where they find themselves in that system. Schools and colleges are graded and categorized from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. Universities are described in terms of how selective they are, with ‘high tariff’ providers regarded as ‘better’ as a result of a self-imposed elitism. Students are sorted, ranked and labelled based on their achievements at every stage. Once they start to opt for, or be limited to, different subjects or qualification routes, these are also loaded with differential value.
As we navigate our way through education, there is no escape from the metrics of success and failure. Judgements are made at every turn, and every educational decision, whether voluntary or imposed, carries with it a heavy burden of relative value which has real-world consequences. More choices mean higher stakes, more selection means more rejection, more anxiety and more dissatisfaction as well as greater inequality.
These judgements serve to create and reinforce hierarchies and widen the gulf between winners and losers; a gulf which often reflects existing class and wealth gradients. The winners are mostly those who start with ‘high value’ support, study ‘high value’ qualifications at ‘high value’ institutions and then inevitably reap the ‘highest value’ benefits the labour market has to offer. This focus on value-ranking flows from a view of education where individuals are required to invest in their personal ‘human capital’ to ensure it is as valuable as possible in a competitive labour market. But those who start with the least ‘capital’ of other sorts find that the market is rigged against them.
Is it possible to ascribe a value to a subject? Describing the value of a subject is very different from asserting that it has more value than another. Can we really say that maths has more value than history? Or that physics has more value than sociology? Or that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are more valuable than SHAPE subjects (Social sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy)? Surely the task of education is to introduce students to the many ways of understanding of the world, and the strength of a curriculum lies in its breadth and interconnections. All these subjects have a value simply because of how they help structure and organize what we know.
But in the neoliberal context, markets and competition require ever more differentiation, and the pressure to value, rank and commodify everything is too great. The recent history of the creation of new subject hierarchies is as baleful as that of the creation of new provider hierarchies. The English Bacc by requiring some subjects and not others is one example. Another was the invention of ‘facilitating’ A Level subjects by the Russell Group which was then taken up by the government for their performance tables for a period. More recently, the government’s Review of Qualifications at Level 3 justifies the withdrawal of funding for certain Applied General qualifications on the grounds of ‘low value’. Another iteration of this approach is the publication by the Social Mobility Commission of ‘Labour Market Value’ measures for Higher and Further Education qualifications based on the correlation between ‘positive value-add in earnings’ and different subjects and courses.
We could dismiss these attempts at an empirical ranking of subjects as bean-counting gone too far. But describing some subjects and courses as ‘high value’ requires that others are ‘low value’. This changes the way people think about the curriculum and can have serious consequences for policy and investment. For instance, public funding for 16-18 education now includes a ‘high value courses premium’ described as “additional funding to encourage delivery of selected level 3 courses in subjects that lead to higher wage returns and … enable a more productive economy” – in effect STEM subjects.
When a funding system incentivizes ‘high value’ courses, hard-pressed providers will sooner or later respond by shifting their priorities. As the ‘low value’ subjects become less attractive to both students and providers, they can become unviable and face closure. By the time the alarm bells start ringing about how vital these endangered subjects are, the infrastructure to save them might no longer exist.
Publicly funded education clearly has to demonstrate the usefulness of what it does and the benefits of the programmes it offers. But the idea that all we need is for more students to know which provision has the highest market returns is simplistic and self-defeating. The economy is dynamic, complex and multi-dimensional, and a one-track approach based purely on wage returns is simply inadequate. If we want a responsive educational offer capable of developing the full set of future human capabilities, we will need to value all kinds of human knowledge and skill as well as valuing all kinds of human work.
So, let’s celebrate all our ‘low value’ subjects, champion what they offer us and defend their contribution to the rich curriculum we need!
How does learning happen? What exactly is going on when we acquire knowledge or skill?
When we consider our own education, it’s evident that over time we learn quite a lot – some of it may even overlap with what we’re taught. First we don’t know x or can’t do y and then at some later point we can. Learning has taken place, but it’s not always clear how.
We must be finding similarities and making connections between what we already know or can do and the yet-to-be-known or as-yet-inexpressible. Memory, retrieval, recall and practice all clearly play a part. The process is surely also shaped by our identity and our social, physical and emotional relation to others; who we are, who we are with, how we feel, and what we and others want.
The mystery of learning is explored in a wonderful short essay Memories of Learning by the German sociologist and philosopher Frigga Haug, based on her original text Die Unruhe des Lernens (2020).
For Haug, the word ‘learning’…
“…brings on a deep sense of discomfiture. It attaches itself to memories of command and attempted obedience, of failure and displeasure, of guilt.”
Many of us will relate to Haug’s account of the pain and struggle of learning to read:
“Reading presented itself as an unattainable goal… I stared at the characters… and strove to find some meaning in their juxtaposition…It didn’t work. The letters kept stubbornly to themselves; two characters together yielded nothing, let alone three or more. I sat in despair for what seemed like hours over the curves and strokes; it didn’t help that they were big and brightly coloured.”
And then there must have been some kind of change of state:
“…the letters must have been turned into words and this process must have been meaningfully transformed into an activity that one might want to practice.”
But having eventually learnt to read, what Haug remembers is not the meaningful transformation but the struggle and sense of frustration and failure.
I learnt to read, at school aged 5, using a French primer which I think was called ‘Poucet et son ami l’écureuil’ (Poucet and his friend Squirrel). I liked the illustrations of Poucet’s adventures which mainly involved him exploring the farm where he lived. Most of all, I liked the page which showed Poucet going with his mother on a journey to Paris by bus and train. For me, the pictures were the story and it seemed quite impossible that I could ever recount it by simply reading the text. I don’t think Poucet was ever shown doing any reading himself, but I felt that the page with the train represented the promise of future reading and that getting to that point would be the start of further journeys. I remember the book and its illustrations vividly and I also remember feeling that reading was just too big a challenge, but I can’t remember the first time I actually read on my own. The skill must have emerged so gradually that there was no single transition point.
Frigga Haug goes on to recount some of her other negative learning experiences, from ball games and university seminar rooms to using a word processor. In each case, the outcome is generally:
“At some point, I must have learnt how to do it… But what I still remember is those anxious hours in which my head felt so curiously empty.”
We like to emphasize the ‘joy’ of learning, the ‘Aha!’ moments when a student gets it at last, the overcoming of barriers and the life-changing possibilities of learning. That’s a teacher perspective. But the flash of joy or the moment of intense pleasure is often the tip of a big scary iceberg which the learner is only too aware of. Yes, learning can be transformational, but that transformation often comes with an emotional cost.
“…without a doubt, the lasting memory of failure in learning influences the development of one’s personality and the form and attainment of learning objectives in the future.”
Haug wonders why it is that she can’t remember the learning process for all those skills she eventually mastered, including those she took to ‘with ease’, like arithmetic, swimming, climbing and running. She became a teacher herself, guiding others through learning, and she can see how it would be useful to better understand how we acquire whatever it is we have that we want to pass on to our students.
What Frigga Haug offers us here is a powerful personal attempt to evoke the learning process as she experienced it – something with essential and life-enhancing outcomes but which could also be painful and difficult. Perhaps this simply reflects the fact that our learning is the result of our constant interaction with the world; our restless confrontation with the unknown and the not-yet understood. If learning is living, then it naturally includes all the challenges that life presents.
“Learning promises competence and ability, but at the same time it means a loss of security, of illusions…”
Haug draws on her experience in the women’s movement and the way she successfully created discussion and action planning gatherings within the wider Action Council she worked with in Berlin. She concludes that…
“…the teaching-learning problem cannot be expressed in terms of teaching as a thing imposed from above (with) learning as the fate of those below. Rather, one needs to grasp the political dimension… (and to understand teaching as both) the attempt to discover other possible paths through the world but also to find companions for the fight to change it.”
Gert Biesta devotes a whole chapter to the problem of learning in his brilliant book ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ (2014). He challenges the idea of learning as natural, inevitable and desirable and shows that descriptions of learning are not neutral and tend to domesticate rather than emancipate the learner. Learning means nothing unless the learner is specific about content and purpose. To say that we have learnt something is to make a political judgement, so as learners we need to seize our learning and make it work for us rather than the other way around.
In order to try to explain what’s happening when we learn, one could reference John Dewey’s social constructivism, Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural approach and the Zone of Proximal Development, Paulo Freire’s democratic dialectic and generative themes, bell hooks’s transgressive engagement or Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, amongst other models. Here, Frigga Haug has instead chosen to explore how learning feels: personal, social, political and often also very mysterious.
Memories of Leaning, Frigga Haug (New Left Review 137, Sep/Oct 2022)
Conway Hall recently hosted a public debate about the proposition “The pursuit of growth is a disaster for our country and our planet” sponsored by the ‘How To Academy‘. Supporting it were Ida Kubiszewski, Associate Professor at UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity and Danny Dorling, Professor in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
It was opposed by Robert Colvile, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, and Sam Alvis, Head of Economy for the Green Alliance.
All our major political parties seem to agree that growth is a desirable objective, essential to achieving prosperity and the good life for all. The pursuit of growth is presented as an unarguable good; after all, the absence of growth is stagnation or contraction, and that sounds like bad news. Generally, the debate is about how to achieve more growth, or possibly about how green that growth should be.
And yet, growth has its detractors and the ‘anti-growth coalition’ is erm… growing. The Conway Hall audience on 21 November may not be representative of public opinion, but it was clearly persuaded that ‘the pursuit of growth is a disaster’ and voted overwhelmingly for the proposition.
So what were the key arguments in this debate?
Ida Kubiszewski went straight to the heart of the matter by questioning the usefulness of growth as an umbrella term. We need to ask: “growth of what, for what, for whom?”. She also explained why GDP is a very poor measure of progress because it includes all productive and consumer activity, even some highly destructive and anti-social ones such as war and crime. Danny Dorling showed that greater inequality and more luxury consumption can fuel growth and higher GDP without bringing any tangible improvements to people’s security, health, happiness or quality of life.
For Robert Colvile there was a demonstrable correlation over time between growth and virtually every indicator of a good life, and he felt that GDP was “the worst measure of progress apart from all the others”. He asked why we in the rich global North would deny people in the global South the benefits of high GDP – is this not a form of white privilege? Sam Alvis made the case for green growth, using market signals and market mechanisms to incentivise and scale up the new technologies and practices which are needed to decarbonise our economy. Addressing the climate emergency is a massive and urgent undertaking and he argued that this can only be addressed using the economic system we have. System change would be a distraction; simply too big and difficult a project and we can’t afford the time it would require.
But as Ida Kubiszewski made clear, ‘the economy’, whether growing or not, is not separate from ‘nature’, it is a subsystem of it and finite resources cannot be depleted without consequences. The ‘anti-growth’ proposition was not about denying anyone a good life but defining it more democratically for everyone and redirecting economic activity towards actually achieving it for everyone and aiming for a genuinely sustainable future for humans on planet Earth. This might mean more production and consumption of some things for some people, but in aggregate it will have to be sustainable at the planetary level.
All four speakers seemed to agree about the features of the kind of society they support: one which is able to meet everyone’s basic needs, provide good public services for all and help people to flourish. But ultimately, Robert Colvile’s uncritical account of the benefits of growth and Sam Alvis’s willingness to believe that the system which created our social and planetary crisis could also solve it, just didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
This was more than a debate about means. The system which has brought us to the brink of global catastrophe wasn’t actually named once all evening but what came across very clearly was the urgent need for system change. Capitalism requires continuous growth and exploitation, drives accumulation and growing inequalities and precipitates crises if it cannot grow. It is the cause of many of the problems we face, not the solution to them, and far from being a distraction, developing a new system based on new priorities is surely an essential prerequisite for human survival.
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with a global agenda for human survival. From poverty to peace and justice they list the urgent challenges we face and set a broad direction of travel towards a fairer and more equitable world for human flourishing.
But, according to the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report, the aspirations of this agenda are in jeopardy, with progress on each goal either stalled or going into reverse. To recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver equitable global sustainability, we need to rescue the SDGs. We are simply not delivering on our commitment to supporting the world’s most vulnerable people, communities and nations, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, investing in public services and better jobs or tackling growing inequalities and poverty.
This year’s 27th Conference of the Parties (COP) is the opportunity to focus attention on one of the SDGs: 13. Climate Action. The climate emergency is humanity’s ‘code red’ warning, impacting across all the other SDGs and acting as a crisis multiplier with impacts across the globe. Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are affecting billions of people worldwide, contributing further to poverty, hunger and instability. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have further delayed the urgently needed transition to greener economies.
Rising global greenhouse gas emissions are leading to record-breaking temperatures and more extreme weather. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth Assessment Report calls for urgent climate action now and provides a stark warning, outlining what we can expect if global temperatures rise by 1.5 °C or higher. As the planet warms, scientists anticipate increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and potentially irreversible changes in global ecosystems.
Projections show that sea levels could rise 30 to 60 centimetres by 2100 even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2 °C. Rising sea levels lead to more frequent and severe coastal flooding and erosion. Ocean warming would continue, with increasingly intense and frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen. Declining ecosystems and biodiversity loss threatens human health and our very survival, and increase opportunities for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, and possible future pandemics.
The droughts, floods and heatwaves brought on by climate change add to the pressure on food production in many regions of the world. Parts of Africa and Central and South America are already experiencing increased, sometimes acute, food insecurity and malnutrition due to floods and droughts. Other projected impacts include devitalized soils, increased pest infestations and disease as well as weakened ecosystem services such as pollination.
In 2020, the social and economic disruption of COVID-19 reduced energy demand around the world and global carbon dioxide emissions declined by around 5%. But by 2021, fossil fuel emissions had rebounded to a record high, cancelling out all of this pandemic-related decline.
But it gets worse. Based on current national commitments, global greenhouse gas emissions are set to increase by almost 14% this decade. According to the IPCC report, any further delay in concerted global action will lead to climate catastrophe and we will have missed the brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.
Climate change is affecting everyone, but the most vulnerable are hardest hit. The IPCC report estimates that over 3 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Poverty, limited access to basic services, conflict and weak governance limit people’sadaptability to climate change, resulting in humanitarian crises that could displace millions from their homes. By 2030, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of displacement by drought alone.
Current national commitments are simply not sufficient to meet the 1.5 °C target. Under these, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by almost 14 per cent over the next decade. Immediate and deep reductions in emissions are needed across all sectors to move from a tipping point headed to climate calamity to a turning point for a sustainable future.
But the resources allocated to climate action are a fraction of what is needed to avert the worst scenarios. Developed countries have jointly committed to mobilizing $100 billion dollars per year up to 2025, for climate action in developing countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), developed countries have fallen short of that promise. Even this $100 billion annual target is far below the IPCC estimate of the $1.6 trillion to $3.8 trillion needed annually until 2050 for the world to transition to a low-carbon future and avoid warming beyond 1.5°C.
We cannot afford to ignore this urgent ‘code red’ for humanity and we must judge our political and economic system by its ability to make progress across all the SDGs, starting with radical and determined action on Carbon emissions and climate justice at this week’s COP.
Simplex and Sapiens are discussing the opposition’s strategy.
Simplex: This government has lost all credibility and support and has no plan for dealing with the crisis.
Sapiens: Agreed. The times we’re living in require a complete change of policy and different priorities.
Simplex: And the absolute priority has to be getting rid of this government.
Sapiens: We have to recognise that ‘business as usual’ is failing us and that we need system change. We need a real alternative.
Simplex: But we need to listen to the voters and go with the flow of public opinion which is basically moderate. Elections are won from the centre, we can’t advocate too much change or challenge the system too much because it scares the people whose support we need.
Sapiens: But public opinion is well ahead of the opposition on many issues, and in any case parties exist to shape the narrative, not just to follow ‘public opinion’, which can be all over the place. Look at the consistent support for nationalization, for redistribution, for union action and for the ‘Enough is enough’ demands. Surely, now is exactly the time for a clear, costed, radical programme which breaks with the current failing system.
Simplex: We won’t get into power as a party of protest, we can’t be associated with strikes and mass action.That’s not how you win elections. We need a ‘grown up’ politics of government; radicalism is just a childish and immature lashing out.
Sapiens: But people are angry, and that anger has to find political expression. It needs to be channeled into political demands, or millions of people will feel unrepresented. Radicalism is a serious and rational response to the crisis we find ourselves in. There needs to be a real discussion now about the kind of emergency programme that’s needed.
Simplex: But this isn’t the right time to be too specific. We need to keep our powder dry. If we set out all our policies too soon, other parties might have time to steal them, adapt them or rubbish them.
Sapiens: But policies aren’t secret weapons! Ideas belong to everyone, they need to be out there, being discussed, in order to have a chance to establish themselves and grow support – that’s real politics. The longer your bold good ideas are out there, the more momentum you can build for them.
Simplex: Tactically, it’s much better to criticize the government without exposing yourselves to criticism. There’s a lot to be said for standing by while they reveal all their weaknesses and lose support: “don’t interrupt your opponents while they’re digging” as the saying goes.
Sapiens: You can’t assume that you will be the beneficiary of all anti-government sentiment. New protest movements might emerge and organize politically. Meanwhile, you’re not building support for an alternative programme. Isn’t this the politics of silence and passivity – a kind of anti-politics?
Simplex: Not at all, we’re busy creating a sense of competence and trustworthiness and building a government-in-waiting which is ready to take over.
Sapiens: Take over and do what, exactly?
Simplex: Listen, if we don’t get in, we won’t be able to do anything at all. Voting for us is the only way to get change, even if it’s not all you’d hope for. Our electoral system forces voters to be tactical and vote for the ‘least bad’ option – and that’s us.
Sapiens: But shouldn’t we also have the option to vote for the kind of programme that will actually make a difference?
Simplex: Do you want the current governing party to win? Anything other than voting for us basically lets the other lot in. Rocking the boat, or abandoning the boat, is just self-indulgent and plays into the hands of our enemies. When it comes to the crunch on polling day, there really is no alternative.
Sapiens: Even your party was once a minor force with little chance of winning – until it grew in support and was able to gain power. There has to be an alternative and real change must be possible.
Sebald in Corsica W.G.Sebald’s ‘Campo Santo’ is a collection of short fragmentary pieces with Corsican settings intended for a never-completed book about the island.
Village wisdom: Corsican proverbs and sayings A compendium of laconic sayings summing up our relationship with money, beauty, love and the passage of time using the imagery of food and wine, saucepans, barrels, foxes and dogs amongst other things.
The Last Corsican Jacques Modoloni’s apocalyptic story imagines the elimination of Corsica.
My Islands Line Mariani Playfair recollects her journey from Corsica to Britain and her relationship with her both islands.
Poem: Corsica takes the shape of the island with each line one word shorter or longer than the previous one.
In 1916, around 5,000 Serb refugees were evacuated to Corsica via Salonika, Corfu and the Adriatic coast to escape the conflict in the Balkans. On arrival they were settled in the major towns of Bastia and Ajaccio and further inland in villages such as Piana, Coti Chiavari, Ucciani and Bocognano. Medical, welfare and educational support was provided as well as work opportunities where possible. This major refugee support effort was organised by the Serbian Relief Fund and staffed by the Quaker-run Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee. One of the key co-ordinators of this work was the British suffragist and peace activist Kathleen Courtney who was widely recognised as an exceptional administrator.
The experience of the Serb refugees in Corsica is also the subject of the fascinating book ‘De La Corse aux Balkans’ (2019) by Jacques Casamarta, Guy Lannoy, Pascale Larenaudie, Tanja Milosavljevic, Hadrien Orsini and Zoran Radovanovic.
Kathleen Courtney (1878-1974)
“Women can make their own contribution to the work and ideals of constructive peace”
Kathleen Courtney was born in Gillingham into a wealthy Anglo-Irish military family. She attended the Anglo-French College in Kensington, the Manse boarding school in Malvern and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University where she studied French and German. She worked at the Lambeth Constitutional Girls’ Club and became active in the women’s suffrage movement, first as Secretary of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage in Manchester (1908), and then as Secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in London (1911).
In 1912, Herbert Asquith and his Liberal Party government were still refusing to support votes for women. The Labour Party passed a resolution committing itself to supporting women’s suffrage and Kathleen Courtney negotiated with the Labour Party on behalf of NUWSS, leading to their support for Labour candidates in parliamentary by-elections. The NUWSS established an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support these Labour candidates and Kathleen Courtney was on the committee which administered this fund.
In July 1914 the NUWSS argued that Asquith’s government should do everything possible to avoid a European war. Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.
Despite pressure from members of the NUWSS, Millicent Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. At a Council in February 1915, she argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: “I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace.”
After a stormy executive meeting in Buxton all but one of the officers of the NUWSS and ten National Executive members, including Kathleen Courtney, resigned over the decision not to support the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague.
Kathleen Courtney wrote about the rift with the NUWSS:
I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines, for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way.
In an article in ‘Towards Permanent Peace’ (September 1915) Kathleen wrote:
The Women’s International Congress does not claim to have invented a new means for preventing war; it does not claim to have put forward a startling or original theory. It does claim to have been a gathering of women of many countries, which proved that, even in time of war, the solidarity of women will hold fast; it does claim to have shown that women of different countries can hold out the hand of friendship to each other in spite of the hatred and bloodshed under which most international ties seem submerged. It claims too, to have shown that, while women have a special point of view on the subject of war, and while its wastefulness of human life must appeal to them with particular emphasis, they can, at the same time make their own contribution to the work and ideals of constructive peace.
The Hague Congress, also attended by Jane Addams from Chicago, established the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace and Kathleen Courtney was elected chair of the British Section called the Women’s International League (WIL).
During the First World War, Kathleen Courtney worked with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee. Janet E. Grenier, her biographer, described this work: “She worked for the Serbian Relief Fund in Salonika, took charge of a temporary Serbian refugee colony in Bastia, Corsica, and was decorated by the Serbian government. Those who knew her during this period described her as full of life and fun and an exceptional administrator. She went on to work for the Friends’ committee in France, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Greece. She was in Vienna for three years where she was horrified by the post-war scenes of starvation, particularly among refugees.”
Courtney also continued her involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She helped establish the Adult Suffrage Society in 1916 and as joint-secretary she lobbied members of the House of Commons for extension of the franchise until the Qualification of Women Act was passed in 1918. The following year she became vice-president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. As well as advocating the same voting rights as men, the organisation also campaigned for equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to the discrimination against women in the professions.
In the 1920s Kathleen became the President of the British Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a position that she held until 1933. In addition to her work for WILPF Kathleen was involved in many other peace, arbitration and disarmament campaigns. She was an organiser of the Women’s Pilgrimage for Peace in 1926, and in the international effort that culminated in the presentation of a petition signed by several millions to the 1932 Disarmament Conference. In 1930 Kathleen took part in the Women’s Round Table at the Fifth National Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in Washington.
When Abyssinia was invaded by Italy in October 1935, she mobilized British and European women’s organizations in the campaign to prevent civilian bombing. During the Second World War she worked for the Ministry of Information. In 1945 she attended the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. Soon afterwards she became deputy chairman of the United Nations Association.
Kathleen was always a strong supporter of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, and her speeches in 1945 were influential in persuading Americans of the value of the United Nations. Kathleen became Vice-Chair of the League of Nations in 1939, and in 1949 Chair and Joint President of the United Nations Association. Work in connection with these organisations involved her in extensive travelling abroad and many speaking engagements.
Although Kathleen Courtney decided to retire from her formal position in the United Nations Association in 1951, she continued to be active with the organisation, and to work for peace throughout her remaining years.
Sending volunteers to support Serb refugees in Corsica
This extract from the “Third Report of The War Victims’ Relief Committee of The Society of Friends, October, 1915 to September, 1916” provides background to the Serb relief operation in Corsica (full document available here).
“The possibility of such work (helping with the assistance of distressed Serbian refugees) was investigated by several representatives of the committee, who visited Salonica, Monastir and Ghevgeli, then threatened by the attacking armies. These inquiries made it clear that we could best work in close co-operation with the influential Serbian Relief Fund, with its headquarters at 5, Cromwell Road, London, S.W., rather than attempting to do so independently; and all that has since been done has followed these lines, with the happiest results.
We have contributed many of the workers who have assisted to distribute the relief and to administer the operations of Serbian aid; and the value of this to the larger body has been repeatedly and warmly acknowledged.
The stream of refugees from Serbia took two directions, that flowing south being mainly composed of civilians, who escaped the worst horrors of the retreat. Some of our workers thereupon helped to organise the refugee camp already started outside Salonica. This was a notable achievement in improvisation, and, with an average population of seven hundred, acted for two months as an important stage in the long emigration from Serbia to Corsica, the latter island having been thrown open by the French Government for the reception of the refugees. On each transport that left for Ajaccio two or three relief workers or nurses travelled to accompany the refugees, to give them confidence and to attend to their comfort on the journey. The camp was finally evacuated and all our workers left Salonica, with the exception of one who remained for some months to care for numbers of Greek refugees who had taken refuge in the city.
The other stream of refugees, composed of the remnants of the Serbian armies, and a number of civilians, mostly men and boys, who were anxious to throw themselves upon the goodwill of the Allies, wandered over primitive roads and inaccessible mountain passes to Scutari and the Adriatic coast. Two of our workers spent the months of December and January in this desolate and distracted country, and in spite of the utmost disorganisation, and in face of difficulties second to none that have faced our workers in any of our fields of work, succeeded in finding food and organising relief for some ten thousand civilian refugees. Their perseverance and ingenuity must have saved many hundreds of lives. The story of the conditions they had to face and of the work they performed is as striking as any to be found in the annals of relief work during the progress of the great war.
The refugees who survived the horrors of those black weeks were at length safely transported to Corfu, and subsequently to Marseille. En route for Corsica, refugee camps were organised in Corfu, where employment was provided for the men, and they were reclothed, housed, and fed.
From thence… other parties of refugees were taken to Algiers and to Corsica. In the latter case, in several instances, serious hardship from lack of food and adequate arrangements had to be faced by the refugees on shipboard; and had it not been for the presence with them of representatives of our work, intolerable suffering and literal starvation would have been their lot.”
Much also was done in Corsica amongst the successive shiploads which reached Ajaccio. The French Government undertook to pay a small quota per head for maintenance, but looked to the Serbian Relief Fund to distribute clothing, to organise medical assistance, and to suggest means of employment. Our workers gave special attention to those of better standing than the great mass of the refugees, and many of them were comfortably settled out in little colonies at such mountain health resorts as Bocognano, or in big villas round Ajaccio, where a genial family life is maintained.
No time was lost in starting work to occupy the time of the refugees and to add to their efficiency. A women’s workroom was commenced at Ajaccio for the making of clothes for the refugees. A loom also was set up for making Pirot carpets, which are now being regularly exported to England. At Ucciani, another of the settlements, a number of men and boys have been occupied in growing vegetables, which help to supply the needs of the various institutions. In these and other ways we have been able to lessen the hardships and privations of a painful migration, and at the same time to aim to help the refugees to fit themselves for the task of restoring their national life.”
The Imperial War Museum in London has records of Kathleen Courtney’s work for the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe between 1915 and 1916 and from 1919 to 1927, her work for Serbian refugees in the Salonika transit camp (January 1916), the journey from Salonika to Corsica and her work at the Serbian refugee camp at Bastia in 1916, together with a small collection of contemporary photographs from the refugee camps in Greece and Corsica.
The increase in extreme heat events around the world shows that the impact of climate change is increasingly lethal. Any climate justice strategy needs to include ‘heat justice’ and a politics of resilience.
More than 5 million people die every year globally because of excessive heat or cold, and heat-related deaths are on the rise. 9.4% of global deaths per year are attributable to heat or cold exposure. Heat is a major killer worldwide, but many heat-related deaths are preventable.
When people are exposed to extreme heat, they can suffer from fatal heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat can also contribute to deaths from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions. Children, adults over 65 and people with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses have a higher than average risk of heat-related death and the poorest are the most vulnerable.
The impacts of both heat and cold are greatest in more deprived areas, and understanding these patterns should inform public health policies and adaptation strategies at local and national levels and protect the most vulnerable groups.
“It was getting hotter.” (Fiction)
These are the opening words of the first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry of the Future’ – one of the most powerful passages of climate fiction ever written. The novel offers a vision of a near-future where climate change is having lethal impacts on a massive scale. Published in 2020, it hardly qualifies as ‘speculative’ fiction since the type of extreme heat events it describes have already been experienced in many parts of the world and will only get worse.
One of the central characters, Frank May from Jacksonville, Florida, is working for an aid charity in its clinic in an ordinary town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He witnesses the devastating human consequences of extreme heat and high humidity combined with power outages.
The air in the coolest part of the day reminds him of a sauna. The monsoon has not yet come and at 6am it is already 38 degrees. With the dawn come wails of dismay from neighbouring rooftops as people discover that other sleepers on their roof are not waking up. As the power goes down and illegal diesel and kerosene are fired up, the air, already bad, becomes a blanket of exhaust.
Venturing out, Frank finds that:
“Every building has a clutch of desperate mourners in its entryway… As with coughing, it was too hot to wail very much. It felt dangerous even to talk, one would overheat. And what was there to say anyway? It was too hot to think.”
People approach Frank for help and he suggests they go to the lake.
“The water will keep you more cool”
But a man responds:
“That water is in the sun. It’s as hot as a bath. It’s worse than the air.”
His organisation’s headquarters in Delhi can’t send help as power is out there, and across Uttar Pradesh too. The only hope is that the heatwave might end soon as rising air over the land pulls in cooler air off the ocean.
When Frank himself makes his way to the lake in the late afternoon, he finds a desperate scene: people’s heads dotting the surface of the water all around the shores and not all of them alive. After sunset, like everyone else, he gets into the water.
“Hot water in one’s stomach meant that there was no refuge anywhere, the world both inside and outside well higher than human body temperature ought to be. They were being poached… All the children were dead, all the old people were dead…Everyone was dead.”
‘What it’s like to live through India’s nonstop heat wave’ (Reality)
The reality is hardly less shocking, in this account from the Bloomberg website by Archana Chaudhary and Akshat Rathi of a single day in New Delhi when the city of 19 million struggled to cope with killer temperatures (May 2022)
“While New Delhi’s growing middle class may have access to air-conditioned offices, shopping malls and cars, there are millions of migrant workers who make up 40% of its population that have spent these extreme days without any access to relief. Even for those who can afford cooling devices, the threat of blackouts from surging power demand remains a constant worry.”
Early in the morning, Darshan Mukhiya, a vegetable vendor, wheels his 83-year-old father in a cart to update his health records at a government office two miles away and avoid losing access to benefits. They set out before it’s too hot to be in the open… at home the only option for cooling off is to soak in the polluted river.
Mahato, 51, helps to run a school in the shade of a nearby bridge.
Metro trains roll by overhead. The air-conditioned carriages packed with people who might otherwise walk or cycle. There should be 300 students, but many families have left the city’s oppressive heat for the villages. The 50 children are drenched in sweat, making frequent trips to the only drinking water tap available. They shut down the school when it goes above 45°C, which doesn’t normally happen until late May or June. Many children who live in cramped homes have been suffering from upset stomachs and even fever, he says, with cases of malaria on the rise as mosquitoes breed in the heat and humidity.
By 1 p.m. it’s 43°C.
Bhumi, 18, shares an eight by ten-foot room with a single window in a shantytown in southern Delhi with her five siblings and their parents. They cook and sleep out on the cramped terrace where it’s slightly cooler. The single fan isn’t much help, she says, and the power could go out at any moment. Her neighbourhood has experienced at least two cuts every day.
Madhu has just heard that government tankers meant to deliver water to her slum in southwestern Delhi have been cancelled. The settlement hasn’t been recognized by the authorities and there’s no tap water available.
“The heat has left us to the mercy of the water mafia,” she says, referring to private dealers who charge between 100 and 200 rupees per 20-liter jerrycan… Madhu and her neighbours will have to spend hours standing in long lines the next day to secure extra water. It also means lost work hours and forcing children to skip school to make sure their families get enough to drink.
By the evening, lingering heat combined with high humidity levels can prevent the body from sweating enough to cool down. That’s often when people can suffer fatal heat strokes. With dense residential clusters and even denser slums, Indian cities are particularly vulnerable to the urban island heat effect.
To make things worse, the increasing number of cooling devices are transferring heat from buildings to the outside spaces, making it harder for the city to cool down despite its abundant greenery.
Vandana, 47, a social activist in south Delhi, says the heat in her low-income residential complex has become unbearable as more and more air-conditioners whirr.
What about the UK?
Compared to India, the UK has had fewer and less extreme heat events, with less severe human consequences. Apart from anything else, the UK is much richer, with twenty times more GDP per capita. But what both countries have in common is the unequal impact of heatwaves on their people.
In the UK, we have just experienced a short and uncomfortable heat wave and we know that climate change means that such events will become more frequent and intense, causing preventable deaths. The August 2003 European heatwave led to the heat-related deaths of around 70,000 across Europe, including over 2,000 in the UK. Heat-related risks are greater in urban areas and London has the highest heat-related mortality rate, with 3.21 excess deaths per 100,000 people, which translates to 170 heat-related excess deaths each year.
England does have a Heatwave Plan, but it is demonstrably inadequate, and a Department of Health review of arrangements for managing heatwave risks concluded that “there is no definitive evidence” that the plan has been effective. The Government had not made significant improvements in recent years and last summer, there were 1,634 excess deaths during periods of heatwave conditions, and the figure for summer 2020 was even higher at 2,556. The slow pace of action means that the UK is likely to experience hundreds of preventable deaths this year. More could be done to mitigate the risk. The Climate Change Act requires us to have a National Adaptation Programme and we need a National Heat Risk Strategy to improve the response to heatwaves.
A politics of comfort and resilience
A heatwave, like a pandemic or an economic crisis, reveals and magnifies inequality. Like food, shelter and safety, physical comfort is essential for human life. To be comfortable, we need to be within a range of bearable temperatures, which may differ from the natural ones around us. We need this basic level of comfort to be able to work, rest, think, learn and care for others. If we are in discomfort, we are unable to thrive, contribute, participate, earn or learn.
In order to achieve comfort, we need shelter, shade, heating and cooling systems. The social provision of comfort, as part of an infrastructure of resilience, is often very basic or non-existent, while access to private comfort is wealth dependent. Our natural and built environments can be designed for comfort, but being wealthy buys us better access to comfort and therefore greater enjoyment of life and everything society has to offer. Resilience has to be paid for and access to it is not universally available. If we can afford shelter, shade, air conditioning, ventilation, and the conditions of comfort, we can be ‘resilient’ and get more from life.
If physical comfort is treated a commodity, it will be unequally distributed – like all market commodities. If we can’t afford it, we won’t have access to it. Being poor often means being excluded from the opportunity to be resilient, from access to comfort and all its benefits, and this leads to discomfort of many kinds; personal and social. The inequality of comfort goes on to magnify other inequalities.
A decent level of physical comfort should be a universal human right, and it should be equitably distributed. Every heatwave should serve to remind us that climate justice is a political issue.
In the essay ‘Climates of Capital’ (2021) Nancy Fraser argues that we need to see the various major crises we face as systemic and connected, resulting from capitalism. If we are to survive and flourish, we will need to create an alternative eco-socialist common-sense about how to organise our economic and social relations. I’ve summarized‘Climates of Capital’ here, with my apologies for any misunderstandings or lack of clarity.
The climate emergency is now regarded as a pressing issue across the political spectrum. But although there is almost universal consensus about the problem, there is less agreement about the forces that drive it and the type of action needed to stop it.
Our crisis is not just ecological, it is also economic, political and social. Our experience of these multiple aspects reduce our confidence in the ability of the established ‘common-sense’ to deal with the challenge. It feels like ‘the old is dying and the new is not yet born’ in Gramsci’s phrase and this leads us to search for a new common-sense.
What is ‘not yet born’ is a new analysis and an alternative hegemony, which could go beyond the merely ‘environmental’ by connecting it to other vital concerns such as poverty, inequality, insecurity, workers’ rights, migrant rights, racial and gender oppression, and the value of care work and public health. To adopt a ‘reductive ecologism’, which sees climate change as the one big issue which trumps all others, is to miss the systemic nature of the crisis. Nancy Fraser argues that eco-politics needs to be anti-capitalist rather than merely environmental, because we need to follow all the symptoms to their root cause.
Capitalism is a way of organising production and exchange based on a monetized notion of ‘value’ where commodities are produced through privately owned means of production by wage labour and are sold on price-setting markets by private firms to generate profit and accumulate capital.
This ‘economic’ realm is entirely dependent on the ‘natural’ realm – a host of natural processes and social activities defined as ‘non-economic’ and which are assumed to have no ‘value’. Capitalism separates these two realms, regarding the ‘economic’ as a field for creative human activity which generates value and the ‘non-economic’ which is devoid of value while also being infinitely self-replenishing and generally available to support production. By discounting ‘externalities’, capitalist production effectively gets a free ride, with vastly cheapened inputs and costs passed on to future generations as well as those who have to live with the fallout now. These costs include pollution, climate change, rising seas, floods, droughts and wildfires, mass extinctions, declining biodiversity and increased zoonotic spillovers of deadly diseases.
Nancy Fraser sums up the contradictions at the heart of capitalist economy using 4 d-words: production is dependent on nature while dividing the economy from it ontologically, disowning ecological costs and destabilizing ecosystems.
Capital’s relation to nature is predatory and extractive and has ecological contradiction ‘in its DNA’, with a resulting tendency to periodic crisis. But nature is not the only ‘non-economic’ background condition. The care work done by families and communities is essential to social reproduction and should also be included in any analysis. It sustains labour power and forges social bonds between people. By splitting production from reproduction, capitalism appropriates care work without planning for its replenishment.
Capitalism also needs political and cultural support to help keep profits up. This includes maintaining the ideology which underpins it, providing low corporate taxation, weaker regulation and a minimum of public infrastructure and hollowing out democratic structures that could enable public power to challenge private power.
Capitalism always seems to be on the verge of disrupting its own conditions of possibility, ‘like a cannibal devouring its own vital organs, like a serpent eating its own tail’ in the words of James O’Connell. The metaphor is apt, and Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming book will further explore the idea of ‘Cannibal Capitalism’.
The system vests the organisation of production to capital, handing the power to manage the Earth to a class that is motivated to trash it by extracting raw materials, generating energy, determining land-use, food systems and waste-disposal. It has the motive, the means and the opportunity to savage the planet, bringing us climate change and ‘baked-in’ system crisis.
Struggles about economy and nature are political and are often about the scale and type of interventions needed, whether local, national or global. They are also about the expropriation and racialized chattel slavery of the global south and the exploitation by, and within, the global north.
What is Nature?
Nature is both a ‘tap’ and a ‘sink’ for production – providing both raw materials and the opportunity to dump what is no longer needed. Nancy Fraser provides three overlapping and mutually compatible conceptions of nature: a purely scientific-realist Nature I, a Nature II which is ‘other’ ontologically separate from humanity eternally giving and replenishing and ripe for financialization and expropriation. And thirdly, a fuller, more historical and constantly changing Nature III, entangled with humanity, shaping and shaped by it.
Nancy Fraser sees history as a sequence of socio-ecological regimes of accumulation, successively based first on animal muscle power, then coal power and eventually the internal combustion engine, all punctuated by crises, each of which, until now, has been provisionally resolved by a successor regime. We stagger from crisis-fix to crisis-fix, from conquest to colonization, from neo-imperialism to financialization with a shifting core-periphery boundary.
We are in the era of financialised capitalism with much manufacturing relocated to the global South. The North specialises in ‘post-material’ activity such as IT, services and finance, although our consumption is as Carbon intensive as ever. The South continues to be raided by forms of ‘monopoly rent’, such as big Pharma’s exploitation of indigenous plant-based medicines and Agri-industry’s patenting of crop strains and designed sterility, and also for new ‘must-have’ resources such as Lithium for batteries and Coltan for mobile phones.
Even as we recognise the threat of climate change, carbon emissions themselves are treated as commodities, to be traded or offset. Natural assets are assumed to be as fungible and commensurable as capital itself. Do we need to justify a new coal-fired power station? Just plant a forest and all will be well.
For a new eco-politics.
In summary, capitalism harbours a deep-seated contradiction which leads to environmental crisis. This dynamic is inextricably entwined with other ‘non-environmental’ tendencies and can’t be resolved separately from them. The costs of the inherent contradictions are discounted and offloaded onto populations that ‘don’t matter’ and onto future generations.
But climate crisis is epochal and potentially terminal, and we cannot save the planet without a fundamental re-ordering of the economy-nature nexus and a dismantling of key features of our social order and the prerogatives of capital. We need to reinvent our relation to nature and wrest the power to determine that relation from those that currently monopolize it. We need to challenge the relentless dynamic of accumulation and the ‘pernicious ontology of value’ and to align social and economic notions of value. We need to recognise that the environment can’t be protected without disturbing the framework of capitalist society and that ecosystem damage increases inequalities and the burdens of poverty and care-giving, with disproportionate impacts on women and those with the least power.
Nancy Fraser argues for a global eco-politics to link natural and social reproduction, questions of ecology, political power, racial and sexual oppression and imperial domination. State-focused movements privilege the national as the frame for action and cling to the belief that capital can be ‘tamed’. The standalone ‘environmentalism of the rich’ or the consumer environmentalism of personal lifestyle guilt and blame are wholly inadequate because they avoid confronting the problem.
Many of the essential building blocks for this eco-socialist politics already exist: movements for environmental justice, environmentalisms of the poor, decolonial and indigenous movements. Green New Dealers advocate programmes to stimulate economies and create jobs. De-growth activists provide a critique of ever-increasing production and consumption but can conflate what should grow but can’t, such as restorative and caring activity, with what is valued most by capital but should not be allowed to grow because it threatens our survival.
All these alternatives bring essential insights and press for a deep rethink of our ways of living and our relation to nature. But none are yet substantive or connected enough to be adequate to the task at hand, which should be to build a new hegemonic common-sense which links all aspect of our crises and integrates them with feminism, labour rights, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-extractivism, anti-consumerism and class consciousness. Developing viable alternatives will require a robust diagnosis as well as a commitment to democratic forms of social planning.
Based on a presentation for the CSPACE ‘1000 little fires’ conference at Birmingham City University, July 2022.
A system in crisis.
It is clear that we are living in a global crisis which threatens our very survival. The climate emergency, the Covid pandemic, unequal and unsustainable production and consumption, the continuing transfer of wealth towards the richest, the damage done by war, poverty, racism, classism and sexism.
These are all are at dangerous levels. Rather than treating these as disconnected crises to be addressed separately, they can be viewed as connected manifestations of a single systemic crisis, with exploitation, inequality and injustice baked in as both cause and effect.
Nancy Fraser describes this as a process of systemic cannibalism; capitalism consuming the source of its own dynamism. This crisis of the system, caused by the system, requires a systemic response, preferably an alternative based on social justice and sustainability, equity, democracy and solidarity. This means developing a new common sense, or counter-hegemony, which can describe how to ensure human survival and create social and economic relations which work for all of us. In education, it means developing nothing less than counter-hegemonic content, pedagogy and organisation from both inside and outside the current structures.
Metaphors can obscure or limit our thinking about education. In this case I have drawn on our most basic tools for understanding the world; language and mathematics.
A vocabulary and grammar to name and frame this crisis.
James Baldwin reminds us that nothing can be changed until it is faced, and Maxine Greene urges us to be wideawake to the world as it is. In ‘Teaching to Transgress’, bell hooks describes how we can use words to liberate ourselves through counter-hegemonic speech. We need to name our current system of economic and social relations as the cause of crisis.
Taking climate change as an example: do we frame it as a lifestyle problem for which ‘we’ all blame ourselves as consumers and which can be solved through our market choices? Or do we see it as a systemic emergency created by our system of economic and social relations with most of the key decisions being taken far from us?
To take another example: when we choose to analyse ‘student underachievement’ or ‘youth crime’, do we see these mainly as failures of individuals or their families, or as the result of systemic inequalities which create the conditions for exclusion and exploitation?
Our naming and framing needs to be based on democratic deliberation not inherited structures of injustice and inequality. And once the challenges are named and framed, should educators avoid ‘scaring’ students or teach the full story and embrace what George Orwell called ‘the power of facing unpleasant facts’?
John Dewey speaks of communication being ‘meaning-guided and meaning-making’ where meaning is a social practice and reflection has a social origin. We need education settings to be places of full, ‘wideawake’ democratic meaning-making and meaning-sharing.
The geometry and algebra of alternatives.
Our existing social, political and economic relations are no longer fit for purpose, they will need a new geometry with new structures and institutions. Progress will depend on a complex algebra of dynamic relationships, equivalencies and dependencies.
The calculus of education: content, practice and structure.
Understanding the calculus of socio-economic change requires us to understand the world as it is, in all its complexity and difficulty. We also need to see the opportunities for flourishing and fulfilment and the relationships between the various forces which can contribute to making the world what it could be.
Crisis requires a new view of what knowledge and skills we value. A social justice curriculum would look very different to what is currently on offer. It would have values, care and solidarity at its heart. It would teach about risk, complexity and uncertainty and nurture the capacity for collective reflection and action. It would aim to develop criticality as well as critical literacies which integrate fields of knowledge with the experience of their application.
Crisis impacts differentially and magnifies class, ethnicity, wealth, disability, gender and geographical inequalities. These widening gaps cannot be overcome with a bit of ‘catching up’ of ‘lost learning’. We need to address deeper causes rather than surface symptoms.
We can’t assume that everything done in education’s name is positive and liberating. The social hierarchies, market-competitive pressures, sorting, selecting and segregating roles of the English system serve to drive inequality. Simply doing more of that will only widen the gaps.
We need to make crisis our teacher, to understand its reality and its dynamics. Will it be used to consolidate existing power structures or to challenge them and broaden the scope of democracy and emancipation? We should aspire to the progressive, holistic, engaged pedagogy which bell hooks advocates. This sees the classroom as a radical space of possibility where we go beyond boundaries, rethink and create new visions.
Education can contribute to a socially just recovery, but not as it is currently organized. Our incoherent patchwork of markets and hierarchies needs to be reshaped as a new democratic Public Education Service for England bringing together all public sector education provision and placing it at the service of everyone.
In Hannah Arendt’s words we need to ‘decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it’. Rather than individual resilience we need the collective social resilience of the learning community; a resilience of solidarity – informed, organised and determined.
So, starting from where we are, how do we develop the content, practices and structures for an education which can help us survive?
Based on a presentation given at the Birmingham City University CSPACE Conference “1000 Little Fires” on 5 July 2022. The original blog is available here.
Politics is about power and change, how we live our lives and what kind of world we want. The political is not a separate sphere of life, it’s embedded in our everyday experience, as are the ideologies that surround and shapes us. Politics is an essential part of our collective life, even if the way it’s practiced sometimes give us good reason to avoid it or even fear it. If we withdraw from engaging with politics because of cynicism or lack of confidence, we lose a significant part of our agency.
The importance of politics means that political literacy should be an essential aim of everyone’s education. If we are to act as equal citizens in a democracy, with a stake in our collective future, we all need to have some understanding of how power works, how change happens and how to engage and act politically.
Our political education begins as soon as we start to look beyond our immediate concerns and start to acknowledge those of others. Making connections between ‘things and people I know and care about’ and ‘things and people I don’t yet know much about’ is the start. This can then build on a developing understanding of justice, equality and freedom.
From early childhood, we start to learn that there are people we’ve never met who have needs and aspirations similar to ours and that there are people we’ve never met making decisions which affect us. We start to realize that our choices and actions have consequences and can make a difference, and that the combined, interconnected impacts of these actions can be more powerful at the societal level than at the individual level. We also learn that people who have power and privilege don’t often give it up or share it voluntarily but that changes in the distribution of power and privilege are possible and have been achieved, generally through struggle.
Students should be encouraged to think politically, to discuss politics, to be political. This political education has nothing to do with trying to persuade anyone to take a particular view or support a particular cause or even to be politically active.
Some teachers may not have the confidence to talk about political questions with students or they may simply avoid them because they themselves see politics as controversial or divisive, or even worse, boring or irrelevant. And a fear of being seen to be influencing or indoctrinating students can create a vacuum in their education where political literacy should be.
Promoting political literacy requires us to challenge some common assumptions about politics. Here are five for starters:
1. “Politics is conflict” The hostile language and personal animosity of much political discourse implies that the only way to engage is by setting people against each other and channeling their hostility. We need to show how, in Chantal Mouffe’s terms, it is possible to be agonistic, ‘the struggle between adversaries’, rather than antagonistic, ‘the struggle between enemies’. This is not to suggest that we can all agree and achieve universal consensus, transcending the struggle for power. We need to emphasize the importance of listening to others, deliberating in a spirit of openness, thinking critically and being able to collaborate. But we also need to acknowledge that some differences can’t be bridged. This requires neither aggression nor passive submission. Opposing injustice and advocating radical change can be done agonistically.
It’s not surprising if some people are put off by this apparent need to be opinionated and combative and that they would rather avoid politics altogether to reduce the risk of conflict or argument; particularly if they already feel powerless or vulnerable. Our opinions are nuanced, contingent and provisional and will change and evolve through our engagement with others. It is not always appropriate to distil them down to soundbites or use them as battering rams. Some aspects of democracy, such as voting in elections, do require us to make a clear choice and pick a side. But being political is about what we do in the whole of our life not just in the occasional election snapshot moments.
2. “Politics is irrelevant.” Much political debate may well be about things which just don’t seem important to us. If politics is just a game being played by people whose lives are remote from ours about things which mean little to us, then apathy is an understandable response. Urging people not to be apathetic and lecturing them about the suffragettes doesn’t really address this disconnect. The answer is not to dismiss politics, but to work out what does matter to us and take it really seriously.
3. “Politics is abstract” The language of political discourse can seem detached from our day-to-day experience. Terms like ‘society’, ‘democracy’, ‘inequality’, ‘privilege’, ‘power’, ‘growth’, ‘austerity’, ‘climate change’ all relate to broad, large-scale concepts or patterns of events. We need to be able to relate these to our own experience but also to understand how they operate at the social level. These phenomena are not intellectual abstractions, they have real-life consequences. Systemic inequality, poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia… all of these do real harm to real people.
4. “Politics is technical and complicated.” The world is certainly complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grasp its driving forces. Complexity should not be an excuse for doing nothing or relying on others to make key decisions. Leaving it all to the ‘experts’ or the ‘grown-ups in the room’ simply means handing power to those who already have the greatest access to it. Equally disempowering is the view that only a few of us are destined to be leaders, with most of us as followers. Instead, politically literate citizens should all be capable of offering leadership, support and challenge, while maintaining a healthy suspicion of those who are too eager to be seen as great leaders. We don’t have unlimited time to devote to political activity, but we can all benefit from having the necessary knowledge and skill to critically assess and hold others to account for what they say and do.
5. “Politics doesn’t make a difference.” Ideas like “nothing ever changes” or “they’re all the same” are often used as an argument for doing nothing. Dismissing the impact of political organising and action feeds the cynicism and apathy which in turn threatens democracy. Luckily, we know that this is a misreading of reality, and students can learn about how change has been brought about by people working together. And while it’s empowering to know that we can all ‘make a difference’ we need to be cautious about overstating the role of individuals in change-making. Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful committed individuals” who “can change the world” and Mahatma Gandhi’s entreaty to change our own nature in order to “change the attitude of the world towards us” don’t fully explain how personal change can drive societal change. Our actions are only an example for others if they resonate with them and help them see why it might be good to follow our example and join in. Even non-violent direct action is only effective if enough other people agree that it is better than the alternatives, such as doing nothing or using violence.
A political education is about more that understanding how our current democratic structures work or promoting the importance of voting in elections, although these things are important. It means being able to develop a critical understanding of the exercise of power, democratic processes and collective action with all their strengths and limitations. This is best done through regular discussion and practice, building outwards and upwards from people’s experience and understanding of the world.
And without political literacy there can be no real democracy. The enemies of democracy want us to see ourselves as atomized, apolitical individuals with little agency beyond selling our individual labour power and using our purchasing power, plus the occasional opportunity to help select our representatives. But we know from experience that it’s only when we think and act politically that we have any chance of changing the world.
Reading Nancy Fraser’s critique of progressive neoliberalism.
‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’.
The global crisis we are living through is ecological (climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, water and atmospheric pollution etc.), economic (financialization of everything, unsustainable consumption and growth, increased personal debt etc.) and social (growing inequality, insecurity, pandemic disease, weaker infrastructure of care and social support etc.).
The crisis is also political. More people have stopped accepting the reigning ‘common sense’, or hegemony, of our age, and there has been a dramatic weakening of the authority of established political classes and parties. We need to try to understand the causes of crisis and the potential responses it may elicit if we are to find our way through and transform our society in ways that can help us survive.
The critical theorist, Nancy Fraser, is Professor of Political and Social Science and Philosophy at The New School in New York City. The title of her essay is taken from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and her analysis draws on the Gramscian concept of hegemony.
When the particular world view of a dominant group has become the generally accepted ‘common sense’ of society as a whole, this hegemony of ideas can make that group’s dominance appear natural despite being contested. The dominant group can be described as a ‘hegemonic bloc’ and it may well be a coalition or alliance of disparate social groups with some common interests.
In ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’ (Verso, 2019) Nancy Fraser analyses the current hegemonic bloc she describes as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and makes the case for an alternative progressive-populist or eco-socialist counter-hegemonic bloc which would be better placed to address our global crisis in ways which enhance social justice and human flourishing.
Distribution and recognition
Nancy Fraser defines the two essential dimensions of justice and human rights as distribution and recognition. Distribution refers to how income, wealth and social and material goods are shared. Recognition refers to respect and esteem, the expression and acknowledgement of identity, membership and belonging. Both are vital components of a good society.
Based on each of these criteria our current system is clearly failing. It is delivering neither redistribution nor recognition for all and both dimensions are in crisis. The promise of a better life in an ever wealthier and fairer society rings pretty hollow at a time when living standards are falling, inequalities are widening and injustices proliferate. The ‘common-sense’ we’ve lived with for several decades no longer makes sense to most of us, and it is hardly surprising that we are searching for counter-hegemonic ideas that could offer us a better way forward.
The ’old’ hegemony seems to be on its last legs, but the ‘new’ counter hegemony is still under construction.
We’ve lived for some time within a logic of neoliberalism, where the ideas and values which support it are hegemonic and have become the dominant ‘common-sense’ of the age. Economic neoliberalism implies a commitment to the primacy of markets, the exploitation of natural and human resources for private gain and the commodification and financialization of as much planetary resource and human activity as possible. It has created an apparently unstoppable regime of global corporate dominance.
This hegemony goes beyond the purely economic, and ideas of market value, competition and exchange have also shaped our social and cultural landscape. ‘The market’ is regarded as the predominant means of providing goods and services. Citizens are defined mainly as consumers and producers, buying and selling rather than exercising democratic control. The idea of humans choosing to work together for the collective good is redefined as individuals using their human capital to gain some personal advantage as well as to generate some wealth for others.
Competition between corporations to exploit people or plunder the planet’s resources is redefined as an essential freedom. Public services are seen as burdens to be minimised, best provided with a minimum of state intervention or at least in partnership with private corporations. Human and social value is defined in terms of winners and losers, with gross inequality a necessary side-effect. Any serious attempt to redistribute wealth and power and create a more equal society is seen as impractical or counterproductive. The rich persuade themselves that they deserve their wealth and privilege and overlook the self-reproducing nature of their advantages. The poor are encouraged to blame themselves for their lack of enterprise and success, even as the rigged nature of the system is evident.
This is the neoliberal hegemony which is failing us so badly and creating the various connected crises we face and which needs to be challenged before it destroys us.
Neoliberalism’s ‘progressive’ variant
Nancy Fraser describes the current dominant variant of neoliberal hegemony as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ because it is an alliance of economic neoliberalism with some ‘elite’ currents of social movements such as feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ rights and environmentalism. While this is a distinctive new form of neoliberal hegemony, it is still neoliberal in that it broadly rejects tax and spend solutions, supports deregulation, corporate power and the global free movement of capital. It is still a system which undermines workers’ rights and union organisation and can lead only to greater inequality and insecurity for the majority.
Neoliberalism has been repackaged and given the veneer of a progressive politics of recognition, but in practice its benefits fail to reach the disempowered or dispossessed majority. In effect we’re being offered more neoliberalism with some crumbs of elite progressivism; limited representation with no widespread redistribution.
Towards a new common-sense?
Nancy Fraser’s view is that to resolve our systemic crises, neoliberalism must be challenged rather than accommodated. This requires a progressive, democratic and egalitarian version of populism – where the interests of the majority are understood as being incompatible with those of the elite. It needs to avoid pitting representation against redistribution or assuming that an alternative politics can only serve one interest group, privileging social class over anti-racism for example – or vice versa. As Nancy Fraser puts it: “the axes of injustice can be attacked in tandem, as they must.” In contrast to a meritocratic progressivism of the elite, it requires, for instance, a ‘feminism of the 99%’ and an ‘anti-racism of the 99%’, and instead of green capitalism it would require an ‘environmentalism of the 99%’.
This counter hegemonic bloc may be under construction, but it’s not yet become the new consensus, and before it does we can expect an unstable interregnum, with many dangers, notably from xenophobic and authoritarian populisms. The recent first round of the French presidential election is illustrative; it has crystallised the options, with the electorate divided into 3 roughly equal blocs: one third ‘progressive neoliberal’, one third ‘progressive populist’ and one third ‘reactionary populist’ – a balance that won’t be easy to resolve given that two thirds have voted to reject the ‘old’ while being fairly evenly split about what the ‘new’ should look like.
According to Nancy Fraser, the progressive populist bloc should focus on the economic and institutional structures as well as the roots of the shared injustices faced by women, black, LGBTQ+ people and working-class people as a whole. It needs to challenge declining living standards, the intolerable insecurity of life under neoliberalism, discrimination and injustices of all kinds, the causes of climate change and environmental degradation, debt, financialization, de-industrialization and corporate globalization. The key is to combine a robustly egalitarian politics of redistribution with an inclusive race, gender and class-sensitive politics of representation. Creating such a counter-hegemonic bloc is not going to be easy but it has the potential to become a political majority and to help us address our crises.
Today’s first round of the French presidential election comes at a time of shifting political assumptions, although the line-up of leading candidates looks familiar, with the top 3 candidates this time round all having been in the top 4 last time round, in 2017.
The first round is a ruthless ‘cavalry charge’ where the only thing that matters is coming first or second. Every other candidate, however well they do tomorrow, will be eliminated, leaving them no role in the second round except to offer support for the ‘least worst’ of the top two. Those top two then move into a ‘duel’ campaign where broad coalition-building comes to the fore and which guarantees the winner the legitimacy of an overall majority.
In the days when the system could be relied on to boil the choice down to a broadly left/right one, the first round was seen as a ‘filtering’ process, to establish which party representative had the most support within their various blocks, paving the way for a clear choice between two broad political traditions in the second round. Seven of the ten presidential elections since 1965, under the fifth republic, have delivered this type of left/right choice in the second round. The other three can be seen as untypical – and often the result of very tight margins between the top 3 or 4 candidates. It’s worth noting that in two of those three, it was a Le Pen candidacy that contributed to the ‘upset’.
The 2022 campaign takes place in the context of global crises as well as specific French factors, such as:
The realignment of the ‘modernising centre-right’ around President Emmanuel Macron in an alliance of market liberalism and some socially progressive elements. This ‘progressive neoliberalism’ seems to have squeezed out support for the ‘Gaullist’ conservatives who formed the core of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in 2007 and are represented this time around by Valerie Pécresse. If Macron can effectively represent corporate interests and promote market reforms to liberalise the French economy, there is little need for another centre-right candidate.
The continuing rise of the racist, xenophobic right which has made space for the deeply unsavoury candidacy of Eric Zemmour, who outflanks even Marine Le Pen in his ethno-nationalism, pseudo-intellectual hate-speech, openly Islamophobic ‘great replacement’ narrative and inflammatory talk of France being in a state of ‘civil war’. Despite her efforts to present herself as a more ‘respectable’ statesperson, Le Pen must take a big share of responsibility for paving the way for this even more poisonous brand of racist politics. The frightening bottom-line is that the combined polling for Le Pen and Zemmour during this campaign has accounted for around a third of the electorate, compared to Le Pen’s first round score of 21.3% in 2017.
The collapse of the Socialist Party and the realignment of the left. While other left and green candidates have struggled to achieve more than around 5% each, the most coherent challenge has come from Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is standing for the third time and is the candidate of La France Insoumise (which translates loosely as ‘rebellious’ or ‘unbowed’ France), both a political party and a social movement which aims to create a new popular front of the left. The ‘primaire populaire’ primary which aimed to select a single standard-bearer for a united left didn’t yield a candidate who could command wide enough support to ensure other candidates would stand down, but Mélenchon is by far the most likely candidate to be able to rally the left and greens.
Throughout the campaign, the polls have suggested that the most likely outcome of the first round is a Macron / Le Pen second round contest, exactly the same choice as in 2017. British media coverage has barely acknowledged the other candidates, generally writing off Mélenchon as ‘far left’ or ‘hard left’. But any examination of his programme shows it to be a detailed, coherent, ambitious and costed rescue package, rooted in republican values of equality and democracy. Entitled ‘Another World is Possible’, this ‘Programme for a Common Future’ opens by declaring that the current system has run out of steam and offers a message of unity and solidarity, rejecting the politics of racism, islamophobia and antisemitism.
The programme includes 694 propositions, costing 250 billion Euros and funded by 267 billion Euros of income. Key pledges include:
Price cuts and price freezes for essential goods. More progressive income tax and corporation tax and limits on dividend payouts. Getting tough on tax evasion, a new wealth tax and revenue from an inheritance tax to be invested in youth training.
An increase in the national living wage to 1,400 Euros per month and guaranteed free subsistence provision of water, gas and electricity. Eliminate homelessness, build 200,000 homes for rent per year and renovate and insulate 700,000 homes per year.
Aim for full employment and full employment rights, Re-establish the right to retire at 60 on a full pension. Stronger action on discrimination in employment, housing, education and health.
Expand public health and social care with 100,000 new health workers and 10,000 more jobs in social care. Reopen the casualty and maternity units which have been closed and build new health centres where they are most needed.
Free childcare and free school meals using 100% organic food and average class sizes of 19 by 2027.
A green new deal with major investment in addressing sea pollution, the water supply, the railway network and renewable energy generation. Plan to withdraw from dependence on nuclear power and invest in industrial conversion.
A ‘green rule’ across all public policy with ambitious carbon reduction targets and an industrial plan. An end to intensive factory farming and low animal welfare standards, a ban on dangerous pesticides and the creation of 300,000 new agricultural jobs.
A guarantee of 1% of GDP to be spent on arts and culture. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. A foreign policy which promotes climate justice, recognises ecocide and guarantees access to global goods such as vaccines.
A constitutional assembly to develop a new political system, the 6th republic, to bring government closer to citizens and ensure they are sovereign.
The impact of these measures would improve the standard of living of 90% of people in France in a highly redistributive and progressive way, with the greatest proportional benefits going to the poorest and the richest 1% contributing the most.
At the end of the campaign, everything suggests that the Macron / Le Pen scenario is the most likely outcome. But Mélenchon’s support has been growing steadily and he has leapt from 5th to 3rd place and has consistently polled well ahead of all the other green or left candidates. If most of the supporters of the 5 lower-ranked Green, Socialist and Communist candidates decide to support him as the most ‘useful’ vote today he could still break through and take the left into the second round. As in 2017, if those voters decide to wait until after the first round before voting tactically they will lose any chance of having a left / right choice in the second round.
If he can qualify for the second round, Mélenchon could map a route to the presidency by attracting the large part of the electorate who believe that the current economic system is incapable of delivering for them and don’t trust Macron to stand up for their interests.
Mélenchon, an MP, former MEP, senator and government minister in the Jospin government between 2000-2002, is a serious and experienced campaigner and a brilliant communicator who has effectively debated all his opponents in public, including those of the far right. He has shown a real understanding of the linked crises affecting the world and is able to present a coherent alternative in a inclusive, popular and optimistic way. He is a committed anti-racist and internationalist while also having an evident pride in France. In a second round against Macron, he could realistically create a majority from all those voters who reject policies of austerity for the poor and want serious change without compromising with xenophobia or ethno-nationalism.
This may not seem like the most likely scenario, but it is not impossible. Election day is the moment the possibility of change becomes real and the hope of real change can build its own momentum.
The climate emergency and environmental degradation, the Covid-19 pandemic, the injustices of systemic racism, wars and their humanitarian consequences, the sharp rise in the cost of living… As one crisis succeeds another in dominating our thoughts, it’s easy to see them as a series of disasters. We stagger from one to the next, each ‘new’ one demanding our attention before we’ve had time to take in the implications of the previous one.
How are we to deal with this succession of challenges coming at us one after the other with so little time for reflection, learning lessons and longer term resolution? How are we to get any sense of proportion or priority when we are presented with what appear to be separate threats; some closer, others further and more remote in time and space? Should we rank them by urgency, by scale, by impact, by proximity to our own lives or by the degree to which we can do anything about them?
Each of us constructs our own sense of proportion and our own narratives about how we might get through, but it’s hard to hold on the idea that we could exercise any agency over the way things are going. Seeing these challenges as ‘one thing after another’; a series of external events entirely out of our control, can just make us feel hopeless and disempowered. This can lead us to turn our gaze away and inwards towards the small things in life over which we have some limited control.
However, every global crisis we face belongs to all of us, however remote it may seem. We all inhabit our one shared world, we each have our one life to live – and we can make a difference. Because they are happening in the same world and are the result of human action, these crises are connected; they are the consequences of human-made systems. We need to look for these connections and build some kind of world-view which is capable of ‘joining the dots’ and generating long term solutions.
Seeing our various crises as being caused by the way we are currently doing things is also to see that this way of doing things cannot continue. The systems and structures of our current world order – economic, social and political – are the very things that are delivering crisis as opposed to security, development or progress. They are the cause, not the cure.
Joining of the dots of system crisis also means recognising that both the problems and the solutions are political and that the actions needed will be political and therefore collective. This means taking sides and making choices. We have seen states respond to crisis in ways which would have been unthinkable until recently: promoting rapid global vaccine development and mass vaccination programmes, mass behaviour change in the interests of public health, large scale state intervention on a massive scale to prop up the economy and support employment, state support to underwrite popular solidarity towards refugees. Most of these measures are presented as temporary fixes, but the very fact that they were implemented has changed our sense of what is possible. When the activist, enabling state mobilises to tackle some of the challenges we face, it also opens the door to wider change.
What was inconceivable yesterday becomes essential today and we see that it is possible to break with our current system in significant ways. And we look at these interventions and ask “if this can be done in a crisis, why can’t it be done all the time?” or “If this can be done here, why can’t it be done everywhere?”
We have to question a system which cannot ensure the basic necessities for everyone, which extracts wealth from the poorest and channels it to the wealthiest, which consolidates privilege and injustice of every kind, which is built on an assumption of continuous and unsustainable growth in production, consumption and waste, which marketizes essential goods and services and continues to produces energy by generating dangerously high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and produces food using intensive, unhealthy methods, which stokes nationalism, xenophobia, insecurity and war. It would be negligent not to be questioning these assumptions.
Just as our economic system is not fit for purpose, our current politics also seems ill-equipped to respond to the challenge. Faced with system failure, we cannot rely on a politics of ‘getting back to normal’ or ‘keeping things broadly as they are with a few tweaks and mitigations’. Trying to solve a crisis with more of the thinking which caused it is starting to look like a dangerous view rather than a moderate one. The narratives which are extreme are surely those which deny the systemic nature of our crises or fail to challenge the reach and use of corporate power to drive and amplify inequality, or the need for superpower war machines that threaten annihilation.
So what’s the alternative? There is no single programme which will solve all the challenges we face, but we need to start from some assumptions about how the global economy and global society could work to meet human needs. We need to ask how we could guarantee everyone a basic living income, decent housing and social care as well as health and education. How could we live well without consuming natural systems faster than they can be regenerated? How could we build a culture of peace and make the world safer while shifting away from military spending, arms production and the organised barbarism of war?
A new common sense will need to be built from these assumptions and will require profound system change. New social and political forces will need to emerge and if existing political parties cannot rise to this challenge, they will find themselves superseded.
Nancy Fraser called her brilliant 2017 analysis of our predicament ‘The old is dying and the new is not yet born’, borrowing the phrase from Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’. And this feels like a good description of the dangerous and hopeful period we are now in as a species globally.
The solutions start in our imagination. Can we conceive of a broad global movement based on a commitment to equality, democracy, solidarity, sustainability and peace? Such a movement can build on the traditions and practices of union, community, liberation, resistance, social justice, peace and environmental movements. Translating this into a coherent and powerful progressive force for global change isn’t easy and does not guarantee success, but doing nothing will certainly guarantee disaster.
2022 is a big election year in France, with the presidential election in April followed by the parliamentary (National Assembly) elections in June. Each of these elections has two rounds, meaning that most voters can expect to go to the polls on four separate occasions this Spring.
From 1965 to 2002, the President served a 7-year term meaning that their term was out of step with that of the National Assembly. Since 2002, both the President and the National Assembly have a 5-year term and the elections follow each other closely with the aim of providing the new President with a working full-term majority in parliament.
The President is France’s head of state, leads on foreign policy and security and sets the direction of government by choosing or dismissing the prime minister. The prime minister leads the government and needs to be able to command a majority in the National Assembly. The president can initiate or delay legislation, call a referendum or dissolve the National Assembly. So the French presidential election is the first step a chain of events over a period of a few weeks which can initiate a major shift in political power in the country.
The two-round system:
The version of the two-round system used to elect the French President is simple to understand but does fail some of the tests of democracy and can have some unpredictable outcomes.
The election is by universal suffrage with every French voter participating having a single vote in a single process to elect a single person. Each voter chooses one candidate at a time in each of two rounds, two weeks apart. The idea is that to be successful, a candidate needs to achieve an overall majority (over 50%) of all voters, either in the first or second round.
The first round can involve a large number of candidates, often 10 or more, who have received the qualifying level of sponsorship. If any one of them wins an outright majority at this stage, they would be elected and there would be no need for a second round. This has never happened, and the closest any candidate has come to this was the 44.7% achieved by Charles De Gaulle in the first round of the 1965 election, the first of this type under the 5th republic. In recent history, even the highest scoring candidates in the first round seldom gain more than 30% of the vote.
In the second round, the lower scoring candidates have been eliminated, leaving a starker choice and everyone votes again, from a more limited list. The idea is that the first round reveals the electorate’s preferences (‘voting with your heart’) and reveals which candidates might have a realistic chance of winning. The second round requires voters to make a more pragmatic choice between major candidates (‘voting with your head’) who may not have been their original first preference. The gap between the two rounds acts a period of reflection for voters to make the shift from ‘first choice’ to ‘least worst choice’.
However, in this particular version of the system, the second round choice is narrowed down to only the top two highest scoring candidates, everyone else is eliminated, whatever their score. So, the only way to win the second round is to finish first or second in the first round. This has been likened to a wild cavalry charge with many starters but only two making it through.
This two-candidate ‘duel’ does have the benefit of delivering an overall majority for the final winner. By definition, the winner of a two candidate election is going to score over 50% meaning that they can claim a mandate from a majority of the electorate. However, creating this cut-off between the top two candidates and everyone else can lead to some strange outcomes. It can mean that the two final ‘run-off’ candidates did not even command 50% of the vote between them in the first round, potentially alienating more than half of the electorate in the second round. In 2017 for instance, the two run-off candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen received only 45.3% of first-round choices combined, meaning that a clear majority of voters had not voted for either of them. In 2002, front-runners Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen only managed a combined vote of 36.8% in the first round.
This system feels particularly harsh when the first-round scores of some of the eliminated candidates are very close to those of the top two. In 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the highest polling left-wing candidate, scored 19.6% in the first round and was eliminated, while Marine Le Pen who achieved 21.3% got through to the final run-off. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to qualify for the second round with a score of only 16.9%, while the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin was eliminated after achieving 16.2%.
The system worked reasonably well when French political opinion could conceivably be ‘boiled down’ to two broad traditions – left and right – and if each of these traditions could guarantee to have a standard bearer in the second-round run-off. The following elections would be examples of this, with the winner named first in each case:
1965: De Gaulle / Mitterand
1974: Giscard / Mitterand
1981: Mitterand / Giscard
1988: Mitterand / Chirac
1995: Chirac / Jospin
2007: Sarkozy / Royal
2012: Hollande / Sarkozy
Taking the long view, these 7 elections can be seen as the ‘norm’ in the 5th republic, with the other 3 (1969, 2002 and 2017) being exceptions. The 2022 election promises to be another ‘exceptional’ one and the result may call into question the idea of any kind of ‘norm’ for these contests.
The French political context has changed dramatically and it is now much harder to find a single line either side of which two candidates can hope to represent the political choice facing the country. And yet, France needs a President, and that President needs to command a popular majority.
Are there any simple changes to the system which could reduce some of its arbitrary unfairnesses? In another post, I will suggest that introducing an element of transferable voting into the electoral process could help to ensure that each voter’s judgement can contribute to the final choice.