Thursday 30 November 2017

Sick of the Royal Wedding Already - Bring on a British Republic?

For as long as I can remember, which is as far back as Charles and Diana in 1981, royal weddings have been used by the UK media and politicians alike, to whip up patriotism and deflect public attention from the dire straits the country finds itself in. In 1981, we were at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s trashing of UK industry in the north of England, Scotland and Wales, inflation was high and so was unemployment.

But hey, what the hell, the Prince of Wales is getting married, let’s set aside all of our worries and marvel at the fairy-tale like story of a royal wedding, sort of thing. I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the wedding, but I was in a minority there, and the media was full of it. It was almost impossible to avoid the story without leaving the country.

Millions watched the ceremony live in St Paul’s Cathedral on television, although I wasn’t one of them. Diana’s wedding dress became the main story in the media, with seemingly endless newspaper and television comment on the matter. It was the only news story in town.   

On Monday it was announced that Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle, an American mixed raced actress. Harry is only fifth in line to the British monarchy so we are not going to be given a public holiday, unlike when his elder brother William married Kate Middleton in 2011, but this hasn’t got in the way of an eruption of media stories about the wedding. There is plenty of bad news to bury at the moment.

Every conceivable angle to the story has been reported. On Monday evening, after the wedding was announced, the Evening Standard had 10 pages devoted to stories about the couple, everything from Harry’s army career, how they met and a look through the bride to be’s wardrobe of outfits and tastes in home furnishings. Everything you could possibly want to know about the event and its surrounding trivia. Yawn!

Much comment has been made of Markle being mixed race, I don’t think anyone from such a racial background has become a royal before, saying it shows how attitudes have changed in modern Britain on such affairs. I do think though it is unlikely that the first or second in line to the throne would have been allowed to marry anyone other than a Caucasian. Things haven’t changed that much.

The media has been quick to claim that the wedding, expected in May next year, will bring tourists flooding into the country, with all their spending in support of the British economy that it will bring. But the truth is, that royal weddings tend to lead to less tourists coming to London in comparable times of the year, as foreign tourists stay away from the weekend in question. The same was true of the London 2012 Olympics when tourism in London fell.

This does demonstrate the sensitivity of the establishment and media though, to charges of wasting public money, especially when austerity is being forced onto the country for an eighth year now. It has been reported that the couple will pay for their wedding themselves, but I doubt this would be the full costs, things like policing and so forth. Not to mention that Harry’s money is from the civil list anyway, paid to the royals by us taxpayers.

I think the number of British people interested in the royals generally has probably fallen over my lifetime. I remember at William and Kate’s wedding in 2011, around where I live in London, there was hardly any bunting or union flags being displayed in the area. A big contrast to Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981, which was very visible with street parties and much flag waving. The population of London has changed a lot since 1981 though, with many more Londoners having been born outside of the UK, but even amongst the UK born, I sense a growing ambivalence to the monarchy. 

So, is there hope for lifelong republicans like me, that we will see the end of all this nonsense in the near future? I have to say, I doubt it. There may be a window of opportunity when the current queen passes on, as I think the British people think on the whole she has done a good job, but for the rest of the royals, I suspect that is not the case. 

But generally the British seem to think a constitutional monarchy is the lesser evil of an elected presidency, another politician, almost certainly. I could go along with a much reduced civil list and more public use of the royal land and property portfolio. And make their weddings private affairs, but a republic, is probably not likely anytime soon unfortunately.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Irish Border - A more serious problem than a No Trade Deal for the UK

It is not as though the British government haven’t known of the potential problems for Ireland that Brexit causes, in the almost 18 months since the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU). This issue has been the subject of the same magical thinking though that has characterised the UK government’s approach to their whole Brexit strategy, if you can call it that.

A ‘technological solution’ is the best that the UK has come up with, whereby there is an exemption for all small traders and farmers from a host of customs, agricultural and food safety checks, on either side of the Republic/Northern Irish border. This has never really been a runner, as it makes a mockery of the EU’s borders and customs control, but the UK persists in insisting it is all perfectly reasonable, all the same.

At the weekend, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, stated that the Irish border issue cannot be determined ahead of any trade deal with the EU, so it should be parked for now. Again, this has been the UK’s approach with all three of the EU’s initial demands: that a Brexit payment is made, and an agreement on UK and EU nationals living in the UK/EU are the other two, are concluded before talks on trade can begin. These first two issues are perhaps close to some agreement between the UK and EU, but the Irish border problem has not been progressed at all.

This was highlighted at the weekend by the Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, saying he wants a written guarantee that the border will be kept open after Brexit, otherwise the Irish government will veto any trade deal. The Republic of Ireland exports £13 billion of goods to the UK, mainly farm produce, and £40 billion to the EU.

Fox’s position makes some sense, because an actual trade deal between the UK and EU will be part and parcel of the whole process. But that is only if you think the UK will get a bespoke deal with the EU, which seems highly unlikely. The EU also appears to support the Irish government’s position on this, so Fox’s line will probably not hold for much longer.

The only way this will be solved quickly, is if the UK agrees to remain in the European Single Market and Customs Union, but this has been specifically ruled out by the UK government. Alternately, the Irish government has suggested that Northern Ireland remains in the single market and customs union, even if the rest of the UK does not. It is possible this might work, but would throw up many problems unless the Irish Republic controlled all of Ireland’s borders, on behalf of the EU.

But the main Unionist party in Northern Ireland has ruled out any such arrangement. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, Arlene Foster told her party conference at the weekend that their Westminster MPs will not agree to a special status for Northern Ireland. Fearing some kind of Sinn Fein plot to start a slide towards the uniting the island of Ireland, the DUP could bring down the minority Tory UK government in Westminster, if any such special deal is made for Ireland.

The impasse appears to be unbridgeable, with time running out for any deal to be struck. If the UK doesn’t remain in the single market and customer’s union, our likely trade deal will be similar, if not exactly the same as the recent CETA trade deal concluded by the EU and Canada. The UK will look to replicate CETA with Canada, and I don’t know the exact details of CETA, but I think we will have to remain in the trade deal anyway, even when we leave the EU. These agreements usually stipulate a continuation of the deal for a period even if you leave the trading union. An EU/UK CETA type trade deal will not solve the Irish border problem though.

Canada is different to the UK, in that it doesn’t have a land border with the EU, and so this trade deal is much easier to police. Say for example the UK makes a trade deal with the US, where the American’s have said this would have to include farm produce. We could have things like chlorinated chicken exported to the UK from the US, which contravenes EU laws. It could get from the UK into Northern Ireland and without border checks, into the Republic of Ireland and from there right around the EU unimpeded. The EU will not allow this situation to occur for obvious reasons.  

So, we can have a deal with the US or the EU but not both, without the UK remaining in the single market and customs union, or the Republic of Ireland policing the whole Irish/UK border. But as I say the DUP will not tolerate this. So, no trade deal with the EU is possible, end of story, unless something gives.

But more than trade deals, this situation could have another more deadly consequence in Ireland. Irish senator Neale Richmond, a European affairs spokesman for the Fine Gael party that leads the government, has warned of violence if there is a return to a hard border in Ireland.

He said: “You put up one watchtower, or put out one customs patrol, and they will be a target, and I would argue they would be attacked within a week of them going up.”

After all the slow progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the last twenty years, this is all at stake from English arrogance and fanciful thinking. Is a hard Brexit really worth the risks to peace in the UK and Ireland? I don’t think so. 

Sunday 26 November 2017

Universal Basic Income – too basic, not radical enough

Written by Michael Roberts and first published at The Next Recession

The idea of a basic income has gained much popularity recently and not just among leftists but also with right-wing pro-capital proponents.  Basic income boils down to making a monthly payment by a government to every citizen of an amount that meets ‘basic necessities’ whether that person is unemployed or not or whatever the circumstance.

As Daniel Raventós, defines it in his recent book: “Basic Income is an income paid by the state to each full member or accredited resident of a society, regardless of whether or not he or she wishes to engage in paid employment, or is rich or poor or, in other words, independently of any other sources of income that person might have, and irrespective of cohabitation arrangements in the domestic sphere” (Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom).

He lists various things in its favour: that it would abolish poverty, enable us to better balance our lives between voluntary, domestic and paid work, empower women, and “offer workers a resistance fund to maintain strikes that are presently difficult to sustain because of the salary cuts they involve”.

And recent books such as Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and Postcapitalism by Paul Mason have also brought this issue to prominence. These writers reckon that the demand for a universal basic income by labour should be part of the struggle in a move to ‘post-capitalism’ and should be a key demand to protect workers from a capitalist world increasingly dominated by robots and automation where human beings will become mostly unemployed.

But ‘basic income’ is also popular among some right-wing economists and politicians.  Why? Because paying each person a ‘basic’ income rather than wages and social benefits is seen as a way of ‘saving money’, reducing the size of the state and public services – in other words lowering the value of labour power and raising the rate of surplus value (in Marxist terms).  It would be a ‘wage subsidy’ to employers with those workers who get no top-up in income from social benefits under pressure to accept wages no higher than the ‘basic income’ which would be much lower than their average salary.

As Raventos has noted, (in the American Journal of Economic Issues June 1996 with Catherine Kavanagh), “by partially separating income from work, the incentive of workers to fight against wage reductions is considerably reduced, thus making labour markets more flexible. This allows wages, and hence labor costs, to adjust more readily to changing economic conditions”.

Indeed, the danger is that the demand for a basic income would replace the demand for full employment or a job at a living wage.  For example, it has been worked out that, in the US, the current capitalist economy could afford only a national basic income of about $10,000 a year per adult. And that would replace everything else: the entire welfare state, including old age pensions disappears into that one $10,000 per adult payment.

The basic income demand is similar to the current idea among Keynesians and other leftist economists for increased public spending financed by ‘helicopter money’.  This policy means no fundamental reform of the economy but a just a cash handout to raise incomes and boost the capitalist economy.  Indeed, this is why the leftist Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has viewed favourably the basic income idea. 

A minimum equal income for everyone, Varoufakis tells us, is the most effective way to confront the deflationary trends that manifest capitalism’s inability to balance itself. Creating a minimum income that’s delinked from work, he argued, would increase effective demand without substantially increasing savings. The economy would grow again and would do so in a much more balanced way. The amount of the minimum income could become a simple, stand alone lever for the economic planners of the 21st century.

Here the basic income demand provides an answer to crises under capitalism without replacing the capitalist mode of production in the traditional Keynesian or post-Keynesian way, by ending ‘underconsumption’.  But what if underconsumption is not the cause of crises and there is a more fundamental contradiction within capitalism that a ‘basic income’ for all, gradually ratcheted up by government planners, cannot resolve?

Raventos retorts to this argument that “Some people complain that basic income won’t put an end to capitalism. Of course it won’t. Capitalism with a basic income would still be capitalism but a very different capitalism from the one we have now, just as the capitalism that came hot on the heels of the Second World War was substantially different from what came at the end of the seventies, the counter-reform we call neoliberalism. Capitalism is not one capitalism, just as “the market” is not just one market.” 

This answer opens up a whole bag of tricks by suggesting that we can have some form of non ‘neoliberal’, ‘fairer’ capitalism that would work for labour, as we apparently did for a brief decade or so after the second world war. But even if that were true, the ‘basic income’ demand stands little prospect of being adopted by pro-capitalist governments now in the middle of a Long Depression unless it actually reduced the value of labour power, not increased it.  

And if a socialist worker government were to come to power in any major capitalist economy would the policy then be necessary when common ownership and planned production would be the agenda?  As one writer put it: “The call for basic income in order to soften the effects of automation is hence not a call for greater economic justice. Our economy stays as it is; we simply extend the circle of those who are entitled to receive public benefits. If we want economic justice, then our starting point needs to be more radical.”

In his book, Why the Future is Workless, Tim Dunlop says that “the approach we should be taking is not to find ways that we can compete with machines – that is a losing battle – but to find ways in which wealth can be distributed other than through wages. This will almost certainly involve something like a universal basic income.” But is that the approach that we should take?  Is it to find ways to ‘redistribute’ wealth “other than through wages” or is it to control the production of that wealth so that it can be allocated towards social need not profit?

I have discussed in detail in previous posts what the impact of robots and AI would be for labour under capitalism. And from that, we can see an ambiguity in the basic income demand. It both aims to provide a demand for labour to fight for under capitalism to improve workers conditions as jobs disappear through automation and also wants basic income as a way of paying people in a ‘post-capitalist’ world of workless humans where all production is done by robots (but still with private owners of robots?).

And when we think of this ambiguity, we can see that the issue is really a question of ownership of the technology, not the level of incomes for workless humans.  With common ownership, the fruits of robot production can be democratically planned, including hours of work  for all. 

Also, under a planned economy with common ownership of the means of production (robots), it would be possible to extend free goods and services (like a national health service, education, transport and communications) to basic necessities and beyond. So people would work fewer hours and get more free goods and services, not just be compensated for the loss of work with a ‘basic income’.

In a post-capitalist world (what I prefer to call ‘socialism’ rather than mincing around with ‘post-capitalism’), the aim would be to remove (gradually or quickly) the law of value (prices and wages) and move to a world of abundance (free goods and services and low hours of toil).  Indeed, that is what robots and automation now offer as a technical possibility.

The basic income demand is just too basic. As a reform for labour, it is not as good as the demand for a job for all who need it at a living wage; or reducing the working week while maintaining wages; or providing decent pensions.  And under socialism, it would be redundant.

Saturday 25 November 2017

The Left must support Catalonia

Written by Gorka Elejabarrieta and first published at Green Left Weekly

Let us be clear, to defend the unity of the Spanish state is at least as nationalist as to stand for the independence of Catalonia.

Being pro-independence does not make you automatically progressive or leftist, but contrary to what some prominent Left representatives in the Spanish state are stating, you can be in favour of Catalan independence from a very progressive perspective.

Moreover, I believe that the driving forces of the Catalan process are mainly progressive. As the process has moved forward in recent years, the left in Catalonia has strengthened while conservative forces have weakened.

Many unacceptable lies have been told lately in the name of the left in regard to the Catalan process. When Alberto Garzon took over as leader of the Spanish state-wide United Left (IU), it seemed to some of us that IU would finally correct its position towards stateless nations within the Spanish state — moving to a more democratic approach that respects these nations right to decide its relations with the Spanish state.

The same can be said about Podemos. The rise of Podemos (which emerged out of the 2011 indignado anti-austerity movement) and its initial discourses in favour of the right to decide for Catalonia and the Basque Country became an important change in the traditional position of the left in Spain towards our nations.

In recent weeks, Garzon and other representatives of the Spanish left have given some profound and thoughtful theoretical insights for the left globally to think about. Among Garzon’s pearls of wisdom, “The left cannot defend the independence of Catalonia” and “It is not coherent to be a communist and pro-independence in the Catalan context”.

Spanish nationalism

It is clear that when he says this it only applies to Catalonia and probably the Basque Country as well because Garzon and his party don’t have any problem openly defending the status quo — that is the unity of Spain — while being leftist and communist. It seems to me that he and his party are much more nationalist — Spanish nationalist — than they are ready to admit publicly.

From a progressive stance, this position is hard to understand unless you add to it a strong dose of Spanish nationalism. From a democratic perspective, this shows that their support for the “right to decide” is just a valid political position as long as no nation dares to use it. Or, what is more pernicious, tries to implement what the majority of the people has decided democratically.

Saying as many others have said — that the Catalan process is not a valid one because Spanish laws, specifically the Spanish Constitution, do not allow it — is a not progressive approach. On the dispute between legality and legitimacy, the left should always be on the side “of the many, not the few”.

How many battles would the left, historically, have won if it did not prioritise legitimacy over existing legality? Suffragist struggles, workers’ organising, the US civil rights battle, anti-Apartheid movement, national liberation movements around the globe — every battle that the left has fought over the past centuries in favour of a better society and for freedoms would not have been fought if restricted to respecting existing legality.

In Catalonia, more than 80% of the population supports the right to decide of the Catalan people. For the past years, there has not been such a huge popular, civic, peaceful, social, political and cultural process in Europe as the Catalan one. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have protested once and again.

This process has brought together the main Catalan institutions, various political parties from the left and right, the main trade unions, hundreds of social movements, and small- and medium-sized businesses.

The response of the Spanish state has been to send state Civil Guards and national police to attack thousands as they tried to vote, arrest leading figures of the Catalan social and cultural movements, suspend Catalan autonomy, and jail the Catalan government, forcing President Carles Puigdemont and four ministers into exile in Belgium.

As a consequence, Catalonia is now being directly ruled from Madrid by a party that has 8% of electoral support in Catalonia.

Choosing sides

When state repressive apparatuses attack those trying to defend democratic rights for everybody (including unionists), the left cannot remain neutral. It cannot position itself between those being attacked and the perpetrators of the attacks.

As human rights activist Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Some on the left say that the consequences Catalonia is facing today are equally the responsibility of those promoting independence as of the Spanish state. From a democratic and progressive perspective this position is not acceptable.

Left-wing British journalist Owen Jones, in a debate in the BBC, said it clearly: “It doesn’t matter whether you support Catalan independence, it really is quite irrelevant. The issue is, do you support the right of the Catalan people to freely determine their own future without being dragged from polling stations and being thrown downstairs?

“And in modern Europe, to see... an elected political leadership fleeing a country to claim political asylum and being locked up in prisons should chill every single European and encourage us to stand in solidarity with the Catalan people...

“If Scotland have been denied the right to determine its own future that would have been a democratic outrage, and... the least that other European governments can do is tell the Spanish government: Stop assaulting voters, stop locking up elected politicians, stop denying the rights of your people to determine their own future and stop attacking civil liberties.”

Some claim the only way for Catalans to exercise their right to decide is first through a profound reform to democratise the Spanish state. This is the path that we Basques have followed for years with no result.

We always believed that Spain should acknowledge the Basque Country as a political subject with the right to decide. Only then would Basques be in a position to freely and democratically determine our own future.

It should be noted that the right to decide is a democratic right, which would allow every political project to be defended equally: that of independence, unionism, autonomy etc. It is a right that at the end of the day would allow every people to determine its future among the existing possibilities.

This path proved futile. There is no enough progressive strength within the Spanish state to democratise it. Not in the past, not now, nor in the near future.

Sortu secretary-general Arkaitz Rodriguez has repeatedly said to the left across the Spanish state: “We are willing to cooperate in the democratisation of the Spanish state with you, but we ask you to be honest and that the day you realise this to be impossible, that you sum up your forces with the pro-independence parties to support constituent processes in our nations, because unlike in the Spanish state, we have enough strength in Catalonia and the Basque Country to reach independent and progressive republics.”

Path to democracy

The path towards a more democratic and progressive Europe passes through building free republics in Catalonia and in the Basque Country. In his day, Karl Marx understood Irish struggle for independence in a similar way, when he wrote in a letter to Friedrich Engels: “The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland.

“That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.”

David Fernandez, a leader of the pro-independence Catalan left, summed up this strategy with the simple phrase: If there is not a democratic path towards independence, then a path towards independence will also bring us democracy.

We are facing, in my opinion, a two-dimension dilemma in Catalonia. On the one hand, the Catalan process is a democratic conflict. Catalans should have the right to determine their own future freely. No law or constitution should prevent exercising this democratic and legitimate right. Progressive forces in Europe and around the globe should stand with the Catalans on this.

The democratic solution to this conflict is clear — a legal and binding referendum on independence. The problem is that Spain will never accept what seems to everybody else a logical and democratic solution.

On the other hand, the Catalan process is a political process. It offers a clear chance to build a republic that is more progressive and democratic than the status quo. It is a political process in which the left is increasing its support daily, and where the status quo is being contested strongly.

Catalonia will never walk alone, and the left must be by its side —because it is also our battle.

Gorka Elejabarrieta is head of the international department of Sortu, a left-wing pro-independence party in the Basque Country.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Tory Budget – Taking from the Needy to Give to the Rich

The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, confirmed in yesterday’s budget statement, that we shall have an eighth year of Tory government austerity measures, and with no end in sight. The forecasts for UK economic growth have been revised downwards by the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), and these predictions could well be worse, depending on how Brexit ends up. It is basically a budget of (un)steady as you go, and more of the same.  

The ideology that underpins the austerity agenda, that is, cut back on public sector wages and welfare benefits, privatise what is left of the public sector, and cut taxes for corporations and more wealthy individuals, is to be maintained. Never mind the lessons of capitalist history, particularly the 1930s, that you can’t cut your way out of a slump, the government persists in forcing more misery on the majority of the population.

Since 2010 when the Tory led government took power, despite all the savage cut backs to public spending, the budget deficit, what we get in from taxes less spending has still not been eliminated. Target date after target date has come and gone, but the deficit remains. Hammond did at least ditch a target date altogether yesterday, but it was becoming an embarrassment anyway with so many promises failing to materialise over the years.

Even worse the government’s debt has nearly doubled since 2010, because growth has been suppressed by these austerity policies, and we are in a downward spiral, whilst we await some mythical upturn in the world capitalist economy. All this and the gung-ho approach to Brexit that many Tories seem to want. Ironically, they think their strong suit is economic competence.

The 1% public sector pay cap remains in place for the vast majority of public sector workers, with inflation rising, this amounts to a further pay cut, on top of the seven years of impoverishment these workers have already had to put up with. There will be no let up in the introduction of Universal Benefit either, which means further cuts for those on welfare benefits, whilst no attempt is to be made to make the rich pay their fair share in tax.   

The politics behind this budget was meant to somehow appeal to younger voters, with gimmicks like the discount railcard for people aged 26 to 30, as though they are not fully grown-ups by this age. But there was also the emphasis on housing that was at heart of this budget’s attempt to woe younger voters. Affordable housing is of course a massive problem, especially in London, but it is not clear to me this has been addressed by changes to policy announced yesterday.

The £44 billion announced for house building is really only about £15 billion of new money over five years, and it appears that this will be used to pay building firms to build homes, in cities mainly, but will these be affordable to most people? Construction companies want to maximise their profits, so are that not really interested in building low cost social housing. Presumably most of these houses will be for sale, which doesn’t solve the problem of housing affordability. There was no mention yesterday of social housing, so we have to conclude that the thrust of policy will be building homes for sale.   

Hammond has allowed local authorities ‘wth the most demand’ to borrow more against their Housing Revenue Account, which may lead to more social housing being provided, but the sums involved will not make a huge difference, (£1 billion for the whole of England) given the scale of the crisis.

The rabbit out of the hat policy, traditionally at the end of the Chancellor’s speech, was to exempt first time buyers from stamp duty tax on properties worth up to £300,000. For properties costing up to £500,000, no stamp duty will be paid on the first £300,000. This highlights the Tory obsession with home ownership over social renting, and will make little or no difference to the housing crisis. In fact the OBR have said it is likely to lead to prices rising for ‘starter homes’.

Some people will benefit, but only those who can afford to pay a deposit, running into tens of thousands of pounds in most cases. How the government will know that people are ‘first time buyers’ and qualify for the exemption is difficult see too. It could well be that this tax break will be abused by wealthy parents, as another tax saving perk.

Typical of the Tories, what is being dressed up as helping young people to get on the housing ladder, is in fact a direct tax take from the less wealthy and given to those from more wealthy backgrounds.      

Tory austerity does work for some, and this budget is another example of the few gaining at the expense of the many. 

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse

Written by Richard Smith and first published at Common Dreams

On Monday November 13th, climate scientists from the Tyndal center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia presented their carbon emissions research to the UN climate negotiators at Bonn Germany. The data were shocking: After three years in which human-caused emissions appeared to be leveling off, global CO2 emissions are now rising again to record levels in 2017. Global emissions are on course rise this year by 2%. China’s emissions are projected to rise by 3.5%. 

These may sound like small numbers but to climate scientists these are huge because if we’re to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Centigrade, those emissions need to be falling sharply, not just leveling off, let alone rising. Colorado State University climate scientist Scott Denning said “We’ve got to cut emissions by half in the next decade, and by half again in the next two decades, as well. The fact that it’s going up is like a red flag flashing light on the dashboard.”

The same day, the journal BioScience published a letter by more than 15,000 scientists from around the world that looks back at the human response to climate change and other environmental challenges in the 25 years since another large group of scientists published the 1992 “World Scientists Warning to Humanity.” 

This time the scientists wrote in part: "Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse." If we don’t take immediate steps, “soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. " The goal of the letter, said William Ripple, distinguished professor in the college of Forestry at Oregon State University, and lead author of the new warning, is to "ignite a wide-spread public debate about the global environment and climate."

Ripple is right. We need a conversation, a global public debate about the global environment and how to save the planet, and we need to begin it right now.

As if on cue, in yesterday’s New York Times, Professor Benjamin Fong launched a broadside placing the blame squarely where it needs to be. The problem isn’t public ignorance, it isn’t bad politicians, it isn’t even bad companies:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

Changing the conversation

For far too long, polite conversation, public debate and consideration of policy initiatives have been subordinated to the imperatives of capitalist reproduction, above all profit maximization. Profit maximization and job creation go hand in hand and crucially depend upon economic growth. All “reasonable” solutions to the crisis of global warming take that as their starting point, a fundamental principle that cannot be challenged. This is the unspoken premise of carbon taxes: Carbon taxes do not threaten growth. 

They’re simply another cost of doing business, another tax which moreover can be passed along to consumers. This is why ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and most big fossil fuel companies support carbon taxes as the lesser evil (cap and trade is the greater evil precisely because a cap would threaten growth, which is why cap and trade are not acceptable to business and why such schemes have all been either rejected outright as in the United States or so watered down as to be useless charades as in Europe, British Columbia and elsewhere). The oil companies are not looking to put themselves out of business. Industry and IEA studies project that global demand for fossil fuels will rise by 40% over the next few decades and the oil companies intend to cash in on this growth. To do so they need to deflect criticism by being good citizens, paying their carbon taxes, contributing to the “solution” or at least appearing to do so.

The problem is, we live in an economy built on perpetual growth but we on a finite planet with limited resources and sinks. To date, all efforts to “green” capitalism have foundered on this fundamental contradiction: maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism when it boosts profits, as with energy efficiency, recycling, and new “green” products and the like. 

But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns—and this they cannot do. No corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put itself out of business, just to save the humans because to do so would be to risk shareholder flight or worse. Profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform within capitalism—and not the other way around as the promoters of “green capitalism” imagined.

To save the humans we know we have to drastically cut fossil fuel consumption. But “Keep It in the Ground” is not just an abstraction and not just about future supplies. If we’re going to radically suppress fossil fuel consumption in the here and now as we must, then this has to translate into drastic retrenchments and closures of industrial plants across the economy—and not just of coal mines, oil and gas companies but all the fossil fuel dependent industries: autos, trucking, petrochemical industries, airlines, shipping, construction and more.

What’s more, the global ecological crisis we face is far bigger than just fossil fuels. We’re not just overconsuming fossil fuels. We’re overconsuming every resource on the planet, driving ourselves and countless other species to extinction. Ultimately, if we really want to save the planet, we’re going to have to shut down or at least drastically retrench all kinds of resource-hogging, polluting, unnecessary, unsustainable industries and companies from fossil fuels to bottled water, from disposable products to agrichemicals, plastic junk to military weapons of destruction.

"There’s no point in chanting 'Keep It in the Ground' if we don’t have a jobs program for all those workers whose jobs need to be excessed to save those workers’ children and ours. This is our dilemma."

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable. The cost of the ticket for that party boat cruise is our children. The same can be said for dozens if not hundreds of industries, thousands of companies around the world. We can save these industries, save capitalism, or we can save the planet. We can’t save both.  

Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of job losses from here to China (pdf).  Yet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries we’re doomed. What to do? There’s no point in chanting “Keep It in the Ground” if we don’t have a jobs program for all those workers whose jobs need to be excessed to save those workers’ children and ours. This is our dilemma.

Planned, managed deindustrialization or unplanned, chaotic ecological collapse

Capitalism cannot solve this problem because no company can promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil-drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers, and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched—and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers, and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. Thus we’re all onboard the high-speed train of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution.

And as our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOS, capitalist economists, politicians and labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Professor Fong is right: Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that so long as the global economy is based on capitalist private/corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to collective social suicide and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, national, regional and international economic planning to re-organize our economies, to provide new jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish, and to rationally and fairly redeploy resources to those ends. 

In a paper I wrote for The Next System Project last year—"Six Theses on Saving the Planet"—I laid out my argument for ecosocialism as the only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse in the form of six theses:

Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse and it cannot be reformed enough to save the humans.

Green capitalism can’t save us because companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.

The only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse is to transition to some sort of mostly planned, mostly publicly owned economy based on a global ‘contraction and convergence’ around a sustainable level of resource consumption that can provide a dignified living standard for all the world’s peoples while leaving enough for future generations and other species.

Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy

Democracy requires rough socioeconomic equality – which requires that we abolish extreme differences in incomes and wealth and enforce those rights already in theory guaranteed to us in the Universal Declaration of Rights (1949) including the right to work at fair compensation, the right to equal employment, the right to adequate food, housing, medical care, education, social services, and a comfortable retirement.

Far from “austerity,” an ecosocialist future offers us liberation from the treadmill of consumerism, from the fetishism of commodities. Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary and /or harmful products and services would free us to shorten the work day, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize the fullest potential of every human being. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.

For some readers, my arguments may raise as many questions as they answer. Fine. But if we don’t change the conversation, if we don’t deal with the systemic problems of capitalism and come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.  So if not ecosocialism, then what? This is the public debate we need to be having right now. What are your thoughts?

Richard Smith is co-founder of System Change Not Climate

Sunday 19 November 2017

A Just Transition from Climate Change and Unemployment

By Joseph Mathunjwa and first published at Daily Maverick

The global economy is facing numerous structural challenges. With the looming fourth economic revolution characterized by even more technological development and mechanization, the future of productive labour is bleak. Most unskilled and semi-skilled workers are likely to lose their jobs. Even some skilled workers are not spared from this emerging catastrophe, as numerous job categories – such as brick-layers – are increasingly becoming redundant.

This points to the urgent need for planning, for conscious investment in job-rich, growth opportunities that enable economies to build productive capacity in labour intensive sectors. One way of achieving this is to strengthen wage led growth, which, in turn, stimulates aggregate demand through enlarged household incomes. Without a dramatic increase in the wages of mine workers, farm workers and all employed people in our country, we will never be able to deal with South Africa’s most urgent problems: inequality, mass unemployment and poverty.

Since unemployment is the greatest determinant of poverty and income inequality, we can expect these, too, to worsen. Already, in 2015, 30.4 million people, that is, 55.5 per cent of the population live on less than R441 per month, or less than R15 per day. The fact that 10% of South Africa’s population earn around 60% of all income, points to South Africa’s widening inequality. Even more alarming is that the richest 10% of the population own at least 90–95% of all assets.

With these terrible statistics in mind, it becomes redundant to repeat what we have been saying as a trade union for a long time, namely, South Africa urgently requires the redistribution of wealth.

Wage-Led Development?

When the millions of working people in our country can afford what the few take for granted – a television set, a washing machine, dining room table, etc – we create the conditions for developing the economies of scale that can sustain local industries from the intense competition coming from a globalized economy. In this way, we will be able to make in-roads into the almost 10 million people who are out of work, out of income and out of dignity.

The importance of the climate jobs work the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) has been leading is that it identifies where the jobs can be created. As AIDC’s latest research – One Million Climate Jobs, subtitled Moving South Africa forward on a low-carbon, wage-led and sustainable path – makes clear, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs in championing low carbon development, as the complimentary strategy to a wage-led development path.

The AIDC’s solidarity with AMCU (the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) is greatly appreciated. It is a solidarity based on a shared approach and conviction of the urgent need to confront the numerous challenges facing our economy, the people whose needs the economy is supposed to meet and the sustainability of human life on a planet heating to unsustainable levels.

Global Warming and Union's Role

However, AMCU is a trade union representing mine workers and construction workers. These workers are embedded in the very industrial processes that are at the centre of contributing to global warming and other environmental problems. It is inescapable that, if we are going to move decisively to a low carbon less polluting economy, it is going to be at the cost of coal mining, coal fired energy plants, coal to liquid gas, etc. Unless jobs are offered to our members in clean industries, they would never voluntarily agree to the shutting down of mining and energy industries. It would be like asking them to commit suicide.

We are, of course, aware that doing nothing about global warming also represents a long road to destruction. However, as you must be aware, many of our members would prefer to take the long road, based on the illusion that we can postpone the inevitable.

Yet AMCU cannot be expected to bear the costs of dealing with the climate crisis. This is why we need a just transition to a wage-led, low carbon economy; a negotiated transition that is the outcome of careful planning by government, business and labour; a transition that guarantees affected workers a decent, alternative job and wage. It is only on this basis that you can reasonably expect any worker to be won to the fight against global warming and of doing something to halt the climate crisis.

Since many of our members have a close relationship to the land, many have first-hand experience of the impact of climate change. The recent drought we have experienced in the northern parts of the country has exposed many workers to the reality of climate change. We must use this as a basis to deepen the consciousness of workers on the nature and scale of the climate crisis we are facing and will face in even more extreme forms in the future.

Regrettably, there are still no discussions between government and labour on mitigating the climate crisis and negotiating a just transition to a sustainable climate and less unequal society.

Indeed, the current actions of government – or should I say non-action of government with respect to the impact of the economic crisis – where thousands of mine workers are losing their jobs, sets a very bad precedent for managing such a just transition. The government is not even mitigating the economic crisis, as far as workers are concerned. Many companies are embarking on retrenchment processes and additional thousands of workers face job losses.

Hence, as AMCU, we need to link with other trade unions and social movements to force government to deal with the current economic and climate crises. In the first instance, we need to fight for a moratorium on retrenchments. To this end, we have applied to NEDLAC for a Section 77 notice to undertake mass action. We await the certificate for protected protest action in order to elevate this issue and expose the threats that it poses for our economy.

Recently, the corrupt bosses of Eskom tried to manipulate the trade unions to support nuclear and coal fired energy by announcing the closure of five coal fired power plants. This was a cynical manoeuvre to use the fear of job losses to keep alive plans for the expansion of coal and nuclear energy, as opportunities for further looting. The renewable energy industry was blamed for the resulting job losses in coal fired energy. Heavy propaganda is being directed at trade unions to get them to endorse nuclear energy, in the belief that this will create jobs.

Government's Role

We will not allow ourselves to be manipulated into supporting the looting ambitions of the predatory elite. We believe South Africa has great potential to build a significant renewable energy industry, as indicated in AIDC’s Million Climate Jobs research.

We need to pressure government urgently to implement just transition strategies. A state-driven renewable energy programme, prioritizing job creation in manufacturing all the inputs and infrastructure for wind and solar plants, is required. Government must incentivize investment in the manufacturing of renewable energy inputs, such as wind masts, solar cells, not to mention solar water geysers

We must demand that government invests in creating jobs in areas that also meet the immediate needs of our people. One such need is housing. The Reconstruction and Development Programme proposed that government invests 5 per cent of GDP in a massive housing programme. If government were to build houses instead of outsourcing them to profiteers (so-called developers) we could strengthen the resilience of working people in dealing with the deepening climate crisis. How much better if those houses are built in an energy efficient, environmental and climate conscious way. Not only would they be built with solar water geysers but could have embedded solar panels providing most of the electricity needs of the household and then some. This could lay the basis for energy co-operatives that could sell surplus energy to local government.

As AIDC has indicated, there are many things that can and should be done to deal with both the economic and climate crises. In this regard, I would be amiss if I did not mention the importance of forcing mining companies to invest in rehabilitating the environmental damage they have created and left everyone else to fix. This long-neglected rehabilitation could create many decent jobs and help absorb miners currently being thrown out of work. Rehabilitation would restore the quality of our soil, water and air, which by themselves are important interventions to address the climate crisis.

Comrades, we are facing a deepening political crisis. Unless we address this and get rid of the gangsters who run our country, we will not be able to do anything to address the climate crisis. As AMCU, we are prepared to collaborate with all progressive forces in undertaking these urgent life and death tasks together.

We look forward to further collaboration with AIDC and all involved in the Million Climate Jobs Campaign. •

This is an edited version of the speech delivered at the formal launch of the research report: One Million Climate Jobs, in Cape Town on 1 November 2017.

Joseph Mathunjwa is the President of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). He was expelled from the National Union of Mineworkers in 1999. Three thousand workers, at the Douglas Colliery where he worked, went on a 10-day underground strike in solidarity with him. AMCU was formed, shortly afterward, when these workers resigned from NUM.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Let's Just Admit It: Capitalism Doesn't Work

Written by John Atcheson and first published at Common Dreams

In almost every way you examine it, capitalism – at least the relatively unconstrained, free- market variety practiced in the US and supported by both parties -- has been an abysmal failure. Let’s take a close look some of its worst failings.  But first, it must be admitted that when it comes to exploiting people and the planet for the purpose of generating apparent wealth for the few, it has been a smashing success. 

More about that notion of “apparent wealth” in a moment, but now, the specifics.

The logical end-point of a competitive system is an oligarchic monopoly

A recent report  by UBS reveals that the global march of economic inequality is accelerating.  The report found that the billionaire’s share of wealth grew by nearly 20 percent last year, reaching a level of disparity not seen since 1905, the gilded age.  Interestingly, the first gilded age followed decades of uber-free market laissez-faire policies, just as today’s gilded age has.

Not surprising, really. Empirical evidence shows that without constraint, markets will proceed toward a winner-take-all status. In short, monopolies and oligopolies. For example, the United States has had three periods of prolonged laissez-faire economic policies, and each was followed by extreme wealth inequality and the three biggest economic crises in US history, such inequality causes.

Oh, but the magic of competition makes companies compete for our dollar, so they can’t afford to exploit us, right? Not so much.

The magic elixir of competition doesn’t work—for the simple reason that there isn’t much competition anymore. Having convinced folks that regulation is bad, the Oligarchy is in the midst of a frenzy of mergers that is giving a few large conglomerates control of many of the major market sectors.

Derrick Thompson, in a recent article in the Atlantic, lays out some of the grim statistics that illustrate the trend. As Thompson writes,

To comprehend the scope of corporate consolidation, imagine a day in the life of a typical American and ask: How long does it take for her to interact with a market that isn’t nearly monopolized? She wakes up to browse the Internet, access to which is sold through a local monopoly. She stocks up on food at a superstore such as Walmart, which owns a quarter of the grocery market. 

If she gets indigestion, she might go to a pharmacy, likely owned by one of three companies controlling 99 percent of that market. If she’s stressed and wants to relax outside the shadow of an oligopoly, she’ll have to stay away from ebooks, music, and beer; two companies control more than half of all sales in each of these markets. There is no escape—literally. She can try boarding an airplane, but four corporations control 80 percent of the seats on domestic flights.

The consolidation of the media is yet another example; just six corporations now control 90 percent of the market. And of course, there’s the inconvenient fact that the “too-big-to-fail” banks that were a major cause of the 2008 Great Recession are now bigger and fewer.

This concentration of market power translates into lower wages, fewer jobs, and higher prices – exactly the opposite of what the neoclassical economic theory embraced by capitalists tells us will happen when we remove regulatory constraints – and exactly the opposite of what the Republicans’ trickle-down myth says will happen. Or what the neoliberal Democrats tell us, for that matter.

But it also gives the wealthy control over our political system, and the people have gotten wise to it.  That’s why a little over a quarter of the eligible voters were able to put Trump in power – most of the rest of us are completely turned off by a political system that’s clearly for sale and so, increasingly, many do not show up to vote.

That control has expressed itself in policies that result in extreme income disparities between the increasingly few haves and the expanding have-nots. Today, just five people have as much wealth as the 3.8 billion people comprising the least wealthy half of the world’s population, and nowhere in the developed world is the problem as acute as it is in America.  The system is rigged, and our belief in capitalism and the power of the magic markets is what allowed that.

Now, about that “apparent wealth”

We measure our wealth in currency.  But currency is simply a surrogate for real wealth, which is based on natural capital and labor.  The problem with this is that natural capital is limited, while the amount of currency is limitless.  For example, the value of the derivatives has been estimated to be as high as $1.2 trillion, or nearly 20 times the size of the global GDP.  So what?  Well, since:

currency is merely a claim made against real wealth, not wealth itself; and
currency has the capacity to grow infinitely; but natural capital, the source of real wealth is finite …

That means we are creating claims on natural capital that exceeds the planet’s capacity to provide it.  In short, we are essentially creating debt for future generations and calling it wealth creation.

So-called externalities exceed the size of the global economy

Economists have long recognized that not all benefits and costs are mediated in the marketplace, and they refer to these as “externalities.” Typically, an externality is imposed on a third party that is not part of a transaction, such as people suffering asthma from pollution.  The way we have dealt with these in the past is to use regulations, taxes, subsidies and property rights to try to internalize externalities – that is, to impose a price on them.  

But neoliberals and conservatives have been backing off that approach and the Trump administration is in the midst of a frenzy of regulatory rollbacks that is unprecedented.

But the costs of this denial are staggering.

Because what has become obvious in the last few decades is that so-called externalities actually exceed the size of the global economy.  That is, the value of things which we don’t price or exchange in the market but which impose costs on society is much larger than those that we do. For example, a team led by Robert Costanza found that the annual value of just seventeen “ecosystem services” exceeds $142.7 trillion dollars in 2014 dollars. 

To put that in perspective, the global world product—the total value of all goods and services measured in the market—was only a little over $78 trillion that year. Thus, our entire economic system routinely ignores values that are nearly twice those we measure. That’s one reason Costanza et al. also determined that some $23 trillion worth of “ecosystem services” had been destroyed between 1997 and 2014, and not a single penny of this vast sum was registered in conventional macroeconomic accounting.  Worse, capitalists called this wealth creation.

Ecosystem services include such things as pollination from bees; flood control from wetlands; incubation of fisheries in coral reefs, among others.  In fact, the maintenance of atmospheric oxygen – a fundamental prerequisite of life – is an “ecosystem service” we don’t price and take for granted.

The big granddaddy of all externalities is climate change, which would cost future generations as much as $530 trillion dollars if we don't take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet conventional economics is totally blind to this staggering amount.  Indeed, the practice of discounting the future, a commonly accepted convention in economic theory, actively discourages the kind of responses needed.

So there you have it.  We embrace capitalism, a system which leads inevitably to oligopolies, monopolies and obscene income disparities; a system which confuses currency with wealth, encouraging unsustainable consumption of natural capital, the source of real wealth; a system which considers the life-sustaining value of natural systems as “external” to our economic concerns

To make matters worse, our capitalist belief system relies on an infinitely growing economy in a finite world – a folly of monstrous proportions.  And now, with Trump, Ryan and the rest of the wrecking crew, we are doubling down on the uber-free market system that is, literally, killing us, and the Democrats, as usual, mumble lame protestations, and suggest half-measures, too afraid to take on the Myth of the Magic Markets, or to cross their campaign financiers.