Former Czech Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla says our way of life is pulling into its final stop. He tells The Mint it’s time for the world to get off and catch the last train out of incessant material growth.
Vladimír Špidla was born in Czechoslovakia in 1951, and studied history and archaeology at the Charles University in Prague, gaining his doctorate in 1976. He was not allowed to work in his field under the Communist regime, but took a series of manual jobs including as a postman and a saw mill worker. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he became a founding member of the newly reconstituted Social Democratic party and his political career saw a rapid rise. By 1998 he was Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. In 2002, as leader of his party, Vladimír Špidla won a general election and was appointed prime minister by President Vaclav Havel. Vladimír Špidla was European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities from 2004 to 2009. Since leaving the European Commission he has continued to champion social justice and campaign against poverty at home and abroad. He is currently the director of the Masaryk Democratic Academy, a progressive think tank based in Prague, which organises seminars and courses and also publishes material on a range of political and social topics. Key themes include the future of work and urban regeneration. Tanweer Ali interviewed him for The Mint in May 2021.
The Mint: The idea of a green transformation, or ‘Green New Deal’, has gained in appeal in recent years. Yet it seems to mean different things to different people. What does it mean for you?
Vladimír Špidla: What we are going to need is a radical rethink of our entire social paradigm, a full transformation of our way of life. The industrial revolution put a society based on renewable resources onto a path of exponential growth. Our challenge now is to return to being a society without that incessant material growth, which is going to end up drying out our planet. A society without growth need not be devoid of movement or dynamism. If we think about the Renaissance and how much changed after the thirteenth century, we can see that progress need not depend on material growth.
The Mint: Can such a green transformation be achieved justly? I am thinking in particular of the developing world.
Vladimír Špidla: We will need to think in terms of global human society, rather than individual nations. If we are to make such a huge change without forcing others to bear an impossible burden, some of us are going to have to make do with less. We need to stop talking about what fraction of a percentage point we want to give away and start thinking in terms of an entirely different order, looking at up to 20% of our GDP. The survival of human civilization is going to depend on it.
The Mint: Do you think this can be done?
Vladimír Špidla: Yes, I believe it can. I see myself as a pessimistic optimist. What do I mean by that? I think it can end well but it will be really very hard. To quote Churchill, it will take “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But in the end, we will win.
The Mint: What will a green transformation do for the world of work? What will happen to people whose livelihoods depend on material production?
Vladimír Špidla: Work has a dual character. There is work that is essentially a commodity, valued in market transactions and that feeds into GDP. And then there is work that is not commodified, but has a usefulness that contributes to wealth creation. Some estimates I’ve seen put the split between these two types of work in terms of what they contribute to overall wealth as around 50/50.
A green transformation would see non-commodified work growing in importance. Useful activity necessary for the continuation of human society will not decline and I don’t have a serious concern that there won’t be enough work to do in a broader sense. Work is to a considerable extent all about human interaction and that isn’t going to go away.
The Mint: How are we going to deal with this shift in the nature of work? Do you support a universal basic income?
Vladimír Špidla: The outcome of these continuing changes could be ever increasing inequality, a horrendous division in society between, an elite of around 10-15% who are highly qualified and have paid work and the vast mass of the population mired in long-term unemployment. A universal basic income could help to avoid this, but I think making it unconditional would be a serious mistake. The importance of work in our society has a deep evolutionary significance, not just as a social norm. As humans we have survived in groups, not as atomized individuals. So there is a need that is deeply entrenched in us to be in some way useful. An unconditional universal income would break this link, this basic ethic in human relations. I fear this would lead to an absolute individualism which society could not tolerate.
My preference, therefore, would be for a different conception, that of a conditional basic income, which recognizes and values activity that is meaningful for human flourishing, not necessarily commodified work. Such activity could include caring for vulnerable relatives, or requalifying, or environmental conservation. All these have one thing in common – they encompass a broader conception of work, one that does not have individual consumption as an end goal.
The Mint: How can we persuade people to accept change?
Vladimír Špidla: I don’t have a big answer for this. On the policy level the challenge that we are facing is an extraordinarily complex mosaic of structures and individual fates and the solution will have to comprise an equally complex mosaic of different policies and practices. It isn’t humanly possible to create a one-size-fits all masterplan. Solutions will also have to be tailored to specific sectors and take care of individual needs.
The thinking required will also have to take in a long-term horizon. Policies will need to be prepared ideally 15 years ahead, at the very least five years. It takes a while to get people to accept major change. One political priority that must be made crystal clear is that nobody will be left by the wayside. Not everybody will be a winner, nobody can guarantee that, and people are capable of accepting that, providing they know they will not be simply left behind. Besides formulating a clear vision of a shared future, this will need all the negotiation structures available, certainly including working with trade unions.
A case study of a successfully managed transformation is the German Energiewende. The goal of moving to an energy sector driven by renewables was first formulated 25 to 30 years ago, and an energy market of around 20 big producers has turned into one with around two million producers. This has largely been accepted by German society, with no major opposition, despite there being various burdens. More important than the vision was the participatory approach taken in its execution. The overhaul of the energy sector was not easy for everyone and there were those who lost out. But it was done justly, or at least not obviously unjustly, and the changes were broadly accepted.
Let me give you an example of how that approach works in practice. What does all this mean for a coal miner? How does all this change affect his life? In the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen they started working on a plan back in 1955, knowing that the mines would need to close in the 1990s. They created a Labour Foundation, and as mines started closing, miners were given work according to their qualifications; they did not lose their jobs. They often ended up working outside the mining industry, with salaries boosted by the foundation. Whilst they received help to reskill and look for new careers, they were always in employment, albeit sometimes on reduced working hours. Nobody was simply made redundant and then stuck on a requalification course. People are willing to compromise provided they are not exposed to humiliating situations and don’t lose their dignity.
It turns out that underground miners make great social workers. This isn’t on the face of it obvious, but if you think about it, they have three key attributes. First, they have high social intelligence. Working in teams deep under the ground in extreme situations, this is a must-have. Secondly, they are used to using relatively complicated equipment. Lastly, they are used to doing hard work that isn’t necessarily pleasant. All this makes them well suited to social work and many former miners in Nordrhein-Westfalen were able to make the transition.
The Mint: What role do you see for the EU in carrying out a green transformation?
Vladimír Špidla: The EU has a crucial role to play. Though nation states have an important role too, they operate on a level that is insufficient for the enormity of the task in hand. In fact that’s why the EU was founded, out of an understanding that some things are just so complex that they can’t be achieved by intergovernmental cooperation alone. Preserving peace in Europe was one such goal, addressing the challenges of climate change is now the order of the day. The EU is going to have to evolve into something more approaching the structure of a federal state. Transforming our society and avoiding a climate catastrophe won’t be achievable without a significant amount of redistribution; at present the EU handles a small fraction of the percentage of GDP that, for example, the USA redistributes among states. You can’t do that without building legitimate political institutions.
If the EU can’t make the change that is needed in the time that is available then human civilization is doomed – there is no other structure in the world capable of managing such a complex transformation.