Friday 29 April 2022

Review - The Critique of Commodification: Moving towards a use-value society?


Written by Andreas Bieler and first published at Trade unions and global restructuring

In his new book The Critique of Commodification – Contours of a Postcapitalist Society (OUP, 2021) Christoph Hermann critical investigates the concept of commodification and relates the associated dynamics to current political economy developments. Importantly, he demonstrates how production for profit instead of human needs results in enormously harmful consequences for humanity and nature alike. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the key contributions of this highly important book. 

Hermann’s first major contribution is that he clarifies the concept of commodification. While often used and referred to in academic literature, to date there has been no systematic analysis and outline of it. Importantly, rather than adopting a moral or pragmatic critique of commodification, he firmly adopts a Marxist, historical materialist position acknowledging the problems resulting from all forms of commodification. ‘While the exchange of labor for money may be morally questionable, for materialists it is the capitalist application of labor power to increase surplus value that makes it most objectionable’ (P.12). 

By drawing directly on the work of Karl Marx, he distinguishes between use value, the satisfaction of needs on one hand, and exchange value or market value on the other, which is geared towards the maximization of profit. ‘Usually it is competition and the profit motive that makes sure that market value comes to dominate use value’ (P.28). Sub-categories of commodification include formal, real and fictitious commodification, further clarifying our understanding about processes of commodification as a whole. 

Production for maximising profits, i.e. the production of commodities, comes however with a heavy price. ‘The main threat,’ Hermann argues, ‘is the transformation of our livelihoods, including the destruction of the ecological base of human life and flourishing’ (P.XI). By relegating human needs to a secondary role, ‘commodity production has become an obstacle to urgently needed social and ecological transformation – including, for example, a more sustainable transportation system’ (P.38). In other words, commodification is deeply harmful to human beings and nature alike. 

Hermann’s second major contribution is that he unravels in detail the various political-economic processes, through which commodification takes place, including privatization, liberalization, marketization, New Public Management and austerity. New Public Management is an interesting example of fictitious commodification. Rather than relying on markets and the profit motive, here ‘commodification is based on the introduction of quasi-markets, forcing different parts of the same organization to compete with each other’ (P.38). 

Constant performance measurement and turning citizens into consumers are key strategies in this respect (P.54). Working in Higher Education in the UK, I can confirm that this has become part of our daily working practices due to restructuring over recent years. 

The consequences of commodification are dire. Needs which are not backed by purchasing power are being neglected. In many countries, if you cannot pay, your water will be turned off for example. There is a focus on producing those commodities, which secure the highest profits and short-term profits are generally prioritised over long-term sustainability. The quality of services is sacrificed for profitability and products become standardised and homogenised. 

Essential goods have been turned into items of speculation with at times disastrous consequences for people. As a result of the financialisation of agricultural production, for example, ‘world food prices rose by 83 per cent between 2005 and 2008, with corn prices nearly tripling. Rice prices increased by 70 percent, and wheat prices by 127 percent. Growing food prices, in turn drove at least 40 million more people in the developing world into hunger’ (P.87). As commodification reaches its social, political, systemic and ecological limits, human beings’ very survival is endangered. 

Hermann, however, does not stop at defining processes of commodification and highlighting their disastrous consequences. By turning to ‘use value’, he also points to potential, collective ways out of existential crises. The role of nature is key, when illustrating the move from market value to use value. ‘While nature has little if any (marginal) utility, it has an enormous use value. At the same time, nature’s use value is inherently collective: it provides the collective basis of life and human flourishing’ (P.119). 

Hence, a use-value society can provide the basis of moving from production for profit to production focused on the satisfaction of human needs. ‘A use-value society is a collective project, driven by the development of collective capacities and open to innovation and technological progress with technology serving human needs rather than profit maximization’ (P.152).

Hermann identifies three elements that ‘are crucial for the promotion of use value: democratization, sustainability, and solidarity’ (P.135). In order to ensure a shift towards production for the satisfaction of needs, the economy must be democratised including two key elements. ‘On the one hand, the shift toward self-managed enterprises, and on the other hand, the introduction of democratic planning’ (P.141). When it comes to sustainability, Hermann mirrors to some extent arguments from the degrowth literature, when he suggests that ‘what is needed is an economic contraction in the Global North, making space for some material improvement in the South (P.147). 

Solidarity, in turn, is crucial as the opposite of (capitalist) competition. Solidarity prioritises the collective good over individual gains. Ultimately, ‘putting common goals before individual interests is not only important for winning concessions from capital; it is also crucial for tackling the ecological crisis’ (P.151). 

Importantly, this use-value society is not something, which could only be established after a full-scale transformation of our current capitalist political economy sometime in the distant future. The transformation can start here and now building up incrementally over time. As Hermann concludes his book, ‘positive experience with growing islands of use-value orientation in the sea of profit maximization can, hopefully, pave the way for systemic change, ending capitalism and commodification – and tackling the ecological crisis. 

In this sense, a use-value society can also be seen as a first step, or transitory phase, in the long journey to an ecologically sustainable socialism’ (P.157).  

This is clearly a major intervention in critical scholarship, linking up well theoretical reflections with concrete suggestions for activism. A must-read for everyone interested in progressive ways out of crisis. 

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at University of Nottingham/UK

Personal website:

Tuesday 26 April 2022

Learning to Grow Movements Out of Organizations

Written by Laurence Cox and first published at ICNC

If activists are resisting an incinerator in one town and the neighboring town is resisting a megadump, how can they get beyond just fighting their own battles in isolation? How can they link up those different struggles and push for environmental justice? And how can they work together with other groups to challenge the underlying economics and incentives that produce waste in the first place?

When activists talk about issues like climate collapse or the rise of the far right, global inequalities or femicide, they don’t expect the issues to solve themselves. But the kind of agency that activists need to tackle these kinds of problems is far bigger than any individual organization or campaign.

If we share each other’s outrage or critiques of the status quo, we might feel like part of a movement, but without shared action and strategy towards systemic change, there isn’t a movement. Learning to work together across difference is a major milestone. The skills to make this happen are part of what I call the “ABC of activism” in my book Why Social Movements Matter (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

The ABC includes connecting up campaigns in different places and countries. It embraces intersectional work tackling inequalities of class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability/disability, etc. within our organizations. It also comprises forging both immediate coalitions and strategic alliances between movements around different issues and between different communities in struggle. This means thinking more deeply, about the structural and systemic problems we are facing, and more strategically, about how to build the power we need for the change we want.

Beyond organizational patriotism

In order to go from an organization to a movement, activists have to overcome what German speakers call “organizational patriotism” (Organisationspatriotismus, a generic term that has been applied to everything from strategic planning to business theory). Organizational patriotism includes narrowly prioritizing your own organization’s interests over all others. It means siloed social media work (not signal-boosting related organizations) and training programs that fail to mention other organizations working on the same issues.

Organizational patriotism happens when organizations neglect networking and alliance-building. There are many other organizational forms and practices that keep us acting and thinking in separate boxes—as if our organization alone could do it all.

If we are serious about overcoming the problems we face, what we ultimately need—as frameworks running from intersectionality to climate justice acknowledge—is very broad alliances of movements, or far larger, more diverse and internally complex movements. Becoming able to act as “the peace movement”, “the Black community”, “the climate movement”, “labor” and so on is a huge achievement, but not a resting point.

What can we do?

Some movements have long-standing cultures of alliance-building and networking across organizations, social groups and countries. Organizations may start with experienced activists with good connections to other movements, communities and civil society actors, or stand in a tradition that values making connections. Yet many organizations don’t start from such an ideal place, and the forces of entropy and fragmentation are very powerful.

It is easy enough today to learn the technical skills of mobilizing for a campaign, building an organization, carrying out nonviolent direct action or using social media effectively. But there are fewer spaces to address the problems of organizational patriotism. And of course, organizations that aren’t having conversations about this problem are less likely to see the need to address it. So what can we do?

In earlier research about movement development, my colleagues and I asked activists how movements can build the strategic capacity to think about large-scale change over time. Two strategies that came up were:

  1. Building alliances across organizations, communities and movements;
  2. Creating the spaces and skills for movements to become learning agents.

A manageable way to start alliance-building is simply to hold a 90-minute meeting with a small group of people involved in your organization, your movement or your community. Name other communities, movements or organizations that are near enough—geographically, in terms of issues—that you could easily reach out to them; identify the benefits and challenges of doing so; and think about the wider basis for an alliance (geographical, thematic, in terms of which social groups are involved, etc.) And then set a realistic goal—concrete and doable—that could mark a first step towards a more strategic alliance.

Learning from and for movements

How do movements become learning agents? Three activist training networks already run pan-European projects geared to supporting activists learning to grow the movements we need for a better world. The Ulex Project’s Ecology of Social Movements course; the European Community Organizing Network’s Citizen Participation University and European Alternatives’ School of Transnational Activism already tackle this fragmentation in different ways.

Together with two researchers who helped run the National University of Ireland Maynooth’s masters in activism course (2009-2015) we are working on a year-long training program for activists and adult educators across the continent. The program includes two-week residentials framing an online course and local support networks. It is geared to supporting “transnational and transversal (across social groups and movement issues) active citizenship” and highlighting the skills and knowledge needed for this.

Like the various trainings mentioned above, the idea is to make this financially accessible on a solidarity economy basis and to ensure the workload is manageable. At the same time we expect that participants will welcome the opportunity to create some space in their work to go beyond “fire-fighting” and reflect on questions of strategic effectiveness. There is a time cost for doing this—but it is nothing compared to the costs of being permanently trapped in the endless cycle of simply reacting to crises.

Editor’s note: In addition to the above, organizations like Rhize and ICNC offer activist learning and leadership development opportunities throughout the year.

Laurence Cox is co-author of The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-editor of the activist/academic journal Interface. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and has been involved in many different movements since the 1980s. 

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Digital Ecosocialism – Breaking the Power of Big Tech

Written by Michael Kwet, and first published at ROAR Magazine

We Can No Longer Ignore The Role Of Big Tech In Entrenching Global Inequality.

To curtail the forces of digital capitalism, we need an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal.

In the space of a few years, the debate on how to rein in Big Tech has become mainstream, discussed across the political spectrum. Yet, so far the proposals to regulate largely fail to address the capitalist, imperialist and environmental dimensions of digital power, which together are deepening global inequality and pushing the planet closer to collapse. We urgently need to build a ecosocialist digital ecosystem, but what would that look like and how can we get there?

This essay aims to highlight some of the core elements of a digital socialist agenda — a Digital Tech Deal (DTD) — centered on principles of anti-imperialism, class abolition, reparations and degrowth that can transition us to a 21st century socialist economy. It draws on proposals for transformation as well as existing models that can be scaled up, and seeks to integrate those with other movements pushing for alternatives to capitalism, in particular the degrowth movement.

The scale of needed transformation is massive, but we hope this attempt at outlining a socialist Digital Tech Deal provokes further brainstorming and debate over how an egalitarian digital ecosystem would look and the steps we might take to get there.

Digital Capitalism And The Problems Of Antitrust

Progressive criticisms of the tech sector are often drawn from a mainstream capitalist framework centered around antitrust, human rights and worker well-being. Formulated by elite scholars, journalists, think tanks and policymakers in the Global North, they advance a US-Eurocentric reformist agenda that assumes the continuation of capitalism, Western imperialism and economic growth.

Antitrust reformism is particularly problematic because it assumes the problem of the digital economy is merely the size and “unfair practices” of big companies rather than digital capitalism itself. Antitrust laws were created in the United States to promote competition and restrain the abusive practices of monopolies (then called “trusts”) in the late 19th century.

Thanks to the sheer scale and power of contemporary Big Tech, these laws are back on the agenda, with their advocates pointing to how big companies not only undermine consumers, workers and small businesses, but even challenge the foundations of democracy itself.

Antitrust advocates argue that monopolies distort an otherwise ideal capitalist system and that what is needed is a level playing field for everyone to compete. Yet, competition is only good for those with resources to compete with.

More than half the global population lives on less than $7.40 per day, and nobody stops to ask how they will “compete” in the “competitive marketplace” envisioned by Western antitrust advocates. This is all the more daunting for low and middle-income countries considering the largely borderless nature of the internet.

At a broader level, as I argued in a previous article, published at ROAR, antitrust advocates ignore the globally unequal division of labor and exchange of goods and services that has been deepened by the digitalization of the global economy. The likes of Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Nvidia, Intel, AMD and many other firms are so big because they own the intellectual property and means of computation that is used across the world. Antitrust thinkers, especially those in the US, end up systematically erasing American empire and the Global South from the picture.

European antitrust initiatives are no better. There, policymakers who huff and puff about the ills of Big Tech are quietly trying to build their own tech giants. The UK aims to produce its own trillion-dollar behemoth. President Emanuel Macron will be pumping €5 billion into tech startups in the hope that France will have at least 25 so-called “unicorns” — companies valued at $1 billion or more — by 2025.

Germany is spending €3 billion to become a global AI powerhouse and a world leader (i.e. market colonizer) in digital industrialization. For its part, the Netherlands aims to become a “unicorn nation.” And in 2021, the widely-lauded European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager said that Europe needs to build its own European tech giants. As part of the EU’s digital targets for 2030, Vestager said the EU aims to “double the number of European unicorns from 122 today.”

Instead of opposing Big Tech corporations in principle, European policymakers are opportunists seeking to expand their own portion of the pie.

Other proposed reformist capitalist measures, such as progressive taxation, the development of new technology as a public option, and worker protections still fail to address root causes and core problems. Progressive digital capitalism is better than neoliberalism. But it is nationalist in orientation, cannot prevent digital colonialism, and it retains a commitment to private property, profit, accumulation and growth.

The Environmental Emergency And Tech

Other major blindspots for digital reformists are the twin crises of climate change and ecological destruction that imperil life on Earth.

A growing body of evidence shows that the environmental crises cannot be fixed within a capitalist framework predicated on growth, which is not only increasing energy use and resulting carbon emissions but also putting enormous stress on ecological systems.

UNEP estimates emissions must fall by 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030 to meet the goal of keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees. Scholarlassessments estimate the sustainable worldwide material extraction limit at about 50 billion tons of resources a year, yet at present, we are extracting 100 billion tons a year, largely benefiting the rich and Global North.

Degrowth must be implemented in the immediate future. Slight reforms to capitalism touted by progressives will still destroy the environment. Applying the precautioonary principle, we cannot afford to risk a permanent ecological catastrophe. The tech sector is not a bystander here, but now one of the leading drivers of these trends.

According to a recent report, in 2019, digital technologies — defined as telecommunications networks, data centers, terminals (personal devices) and IoT (internet of things) sensors — contributed 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and its energy use has increased by 9 percent per year.

And as high as that may seem, it likely understates the use of energy by the digital sector. A 2022 report found that Big Tech giants are not committed to reducing their full value-chain emissions. Companies like Apple claim to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030, but this “currently includes only direct operations, which account for a microscopic 1.5 percent of its carbon footprint.”

In addition to overheating the planet, mining for minerals used in electronics — such as cobalt, nickel and lithium — in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Argentina and China is often ecologically destructive.

And then there is the pivotal role of digital companies in supporting other forms of unsustainable extraction. Tech giants help corporations explore and exploit new sources of fossil fuels and digitize industrial agriculture. Digital capitalism’s business model revolves around pushing ads to promote mass-consumption, a key driver of the environmental crisis. Meanwhile many of its billionaire executives have a carbon footprint thousands of times higher than average consumers in the Global North.

Digital reformists assume that Big Tech can be decoupled from carbon emissions and resource-overuse and as a result they focus their attention on each corporation’s particular activities and emissions. Yet the notion of “decoupling” growth from material resource use has been challenged by scholars, who note that resource use tracks tightly to GDP growth across history. Researchers recently found that shifting economic activity to services, including knowledge-intensive industries, has limited potential to reduce global environmental impacts due to the increase in levels of household consumption by service workers.

In sum, the limits to growth changes everything. If capitalism is ecologically unsustainable, then digital policies must accommodate this stark and challenging reality.

Digital Socialism And Its Building Blocks

In a socialist system, property is held in common. The means of production are directly controlled by the workers themselves through worker coops, and production is for use and need rather than exchange, profit and accumulation. The role of the state is contested among socialists, with some arguing that governance and economic production should be as decentralized as possible, while others argue for a greater degree of state planning.

These same principles, strategies and tactics apply to the digital economy. A system of digital socialism would phase out intellectual property, socialize the means of computation, democratize data and digital intelligence and place the development and maintenance of the digital ecosystem into the hands of communities in the public domain.

Many of the building blocks for a socialist digital economy already exist. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons licenses, for example, provide the software and licensing for a socialist mode of production. As James Muldoon notes in Platform Socialism, city projects like DECODE (DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) provide open source public interest tools for community activities where citizens can access and contribute data, from air pollution levels to online petitions and neighborhood social networks, while retaining control over data shared. 

Platform coops, such as the Wings food delivery platform in London, provide a prominent workplace model whereby workers organize their labor through open source platforms collectively owned and controlled by the workers themselves. There is also a socialist social media alternative in the Fediverse, a set of social networks that interoperate using shared protocols, that facilitate a decentralization of online social communications.

But these building blocks would need policy change to thrive. Projects like the Fediverse, for example, are not able to integrate with closed systems or compete with the massive concentrated resources of the likes of Facebook. A set of radical policy changes would therefore be needed to force big social media networks to interoperate, decentralize internally, open up their intellectual property (e.g. proprietary software), end forced advertising (advertising people are subjected to in exchange for “free” services), subsidize data hosting so that individuals and communities — not the state or private companies — can own and control the networks and perform content moderation. This would effectively strangle tech giants out of existence.

The socialization of infrastructure would also need to be balanced with robust privacy controls, restrictions on state surveillance and the roll-back of the carceral security state. Currently the state exploits digital technology for the means of coercion, often in partnership with the private sector. Immigrant populations and people on the move are heavily targeted by a mix of cameras, aircraft, motion sensors, drones, video surveillance and biometrics.

Records and sensor data are increasingly centralized by the state into fusion centers and real-time crime centers to surveil, predict and control communities. Marginalized and racialized communities and activists are disproportionately targeted by the high-tech surveillance state. These practices should be banned as activists work to take down and abolish these institutions of organized violence.

The Digital Tech Deal

Big Tech corporations, intellectual property and private ownership of the means of computation are deeply embedded into the digital society, and cannot be turned off overnight. Thus, to replace digital capitalism with a socialist model, we need a planned transition to digital socialism.

Environmentalists have proposed new “deals” outlining the transition to a green economy. Reformist proposals like the US Green New Deal and European Green Deal operate within a capitalist framework that retains the harms of capitalism, such as terminal growth, imperialism and structural inequality. In contrast, ecosocialist models, such as the Red Nation’s Red Deal, the Cochabamaba Agreement and South Africa’s Climate Justice Charter, offer better alternatives. These proposals acknowledge the limits of growth and incorporate the egalitarian principles need for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.

However, neither these red nor green deals incorporate plans for the digital ecosystem, despite its central relevance to the modern economy and environmental sustainability. In turn, the digital justice movement has almost entirely ignored degrowth proposals and the need to integrate their assessment of the digital economy into an ecosocialist framework. Environmental justice and digital justice go hand-in-hand, and the two movements must link up to achieve their goals.

To this effect, I propose an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal which embodies the intersecting values of anti-imperialism, environmental sustainability, social justice for marginalized communities, worker empowerment, democratic control and class abolition. Here are ten principles to guide such a program:

1. Ensure The Digital Economy Falls Within Social And Planetary Boundaries

We face a reality that the richest countries in the North have already emitted more of their fair share of the carbon budget — and this is also true of the Big Tech-led digital economy that is disproportionately profiting the richest countries. It is therefore imperative to ensure the digital economy falls within social and planetary boundaries. We would need to establish a scientifically-informed limit on the amount and types of materials that can be used and decisions could be made about which material resources (e.g. biomass, minerals, fossil energy carriers, metal ores) should be devoted to which use (e.g. new buildings, roads, electronics, etc.) in which amounts for which people. Ecological debts could be established which mandate redistributive policies from North to South, rich to poor.

2. Phase Out Intellectual Property

Intellectual property, especially in the form of copyrights and patents, give corporations control over knowledge, culture and the code that determines how apps and services work, allowing them to maximize user engagement, privatize innovation and extract data and rents. Economist Dean Baker estimates that intellectual property rents cost consumers an additional $1 trillion per year compared to what could be obtained on a “free market” without patents or copyright monopolies. Phasing out intellectual property in favor of a commons-based model of sharing knowledge would reduce prices, widen access to and enhance education for all and function as a form of wealth redistribution and reparations to the Global South.

3. Socialize Physical Infrastructure

Physical infrastructure such as cloud server farms, wireless cell towers, fiber optic networks and transoceanic submarine cables benefit those who own it. There are initiatives for community-run internet service providers and wireless mesh networks which can help place these services into the hands of communities. Some infrastructure, such as submarine cables, could be maintained by an international consortium that builds and maintains it at cost for the public good rather than profit.

4. Replace Private Investment Of Production With Public Subsidies And Production.

Dan Hind’s British Digital Cooperative is perhaps the most detailed proposal for how a socialist model of production could work in the present context. Under the plan, “public sector institutions, including local, regional and national government, will provide venues where citizens and more or less cohesive groups can assemble and secure a claim on the political.” Enhanced by open data, transparent algorithms, open-source software and platforms and enacted through democratic participatory planning, such a transformation would facilitate investment, development and maintenance of the digital ecosystem and broader economy.

While Hind envisions rolling this out as a public option within a single country — competing with the private sector — it could instead provide a preliminary basis for the complete socialization of tech. In addition, it could be expanded to include a global justice framework that provides infrastructure as reparations to the Global South, similar to the way climate justice initiatives pressure rich countries to help the Global South replace fossil fuels with green energy.

5. Decentralize The Internet

Socialists have long pushed for decentralizing wealth, power and governance into the hands of workers and communities. Projects like FreedomBox offer free and open source software to power inexpensive personal servers that can collectively host and route data for services like email, calendaring, chat apps, social networking and more. Other projects like Solid allow people to host their data in “pods” they control. App providers, social media networks and other services can then access the data on terms acceptable to users, who retain control over their data. These models could be scaled up to help decentralize the internet on a socialist basis.

6. Socialize The Platforms

Internet platforms like Uber, Amazon and Facebook centralize ownership and control as private intermediaries that stand between users of their platforms. Projects like the Fediverse and LibreSocial provide a blueprint for interoperability that could potentially extend beyond social networking. Services that cannot simply interoperate could be socialized and operated at cost for the public good rather than for profit and growth.

7. Socialize Digital Intelligence And Data

Data and the digital intelligence derived from it are a major source of economic wealth and power. Socialization of data would instead embed values and practices of privacy, security, transparency and democratic decision-making in how data is collected, stored and used. It could build on models such as Project DECODE in Barcelona and Amsterdam.

8. Ban Forced Advertising And Platform Consumerism

Digital advertising pushes a constant stream of corporate propaganda designed to manipulate the public and stimulate consumption. Many “free” services are powered by ads, further stimulating consumerism precisely at the time that it imperils the planet. Platforms like Google Search and Amazon are built to maximize consumption, ignoring ecological limits. Instead of forced advertising, information about products and services could be hosted in directories and accessed on a voluntary basis.

9. Replace Military, Police, Prisons And National Security Apparatuses With Community-Driven Safety And Security Services

Digital technology has increased the power of police, military, prisons and intelligence agencies. Some technologies, such as autonomous weapons, should be banned, as they have no practical use beyond violence. Other AI-driven technologies, that arguably have socially beneficial applications, would need to be tightly regulated, taking a conservative approach to limit their presence in society. Activists pushing to curtail mass state surveillance should join hands with those pushing for abolition of police, prison, national security and militarism, in addition to people targeted by those institutions.

10. End The Digital Divide

The digital divide typically refers to unequal individual access to digital resources like computer devices and data, but it should also encompass the way digital infrastructure, such as cloud server farms and high-tech research facilities, are owned and dominated by wealthy countries and their corporations. As a form of wealth redistribution, capital could be redistributed through taxation and a process of reparations to subsidize personal devices and internet connectivity to the global poor and to provide infrastructure, such as cloud infrastructure and high-tech research facilities to populations that cannot afford them.

How To Make Digital Socialism Reality

Radical changes are needed, but there is wide gap between what must be done and where we are today. Nevertheless, there are some critical steps we can and must take.

First, it is essential to raise awareness, promote education and exchange ideas within and across communities so together we can co-create a new framework for the digital economy. In order to do this, a clear critique of digital capitalism and colonialism is needed.

Such a change will be difficult to bring about if concentrated knowledge production is left intact. Elite universities, media corporations, think tanks, NGOs and Big Tech researchers in the Global North dominate the conversation and set the agenda around fixing capitalism, limiting and constraining the parameters of that conversation.

We need steps to strip their power, such as abolishing the university ranking system, democratizing the classroom and terminating funding from corporations, philanthropists and Big Foundations. Initiatives to decolonize education — such as the recent #FeesMustFall student protest movement in South Africa and Endowment Justice Coalition at Yale University — provide examples of the movements that will be needed.

Second, we need to connect digital justice movements with other social, racial and environmental justice movements. Digital rights activists should be working with environmentalists, abolitionists, food justice advocates, feminists and others. Some of this work is already being done — for example, the #NoTechForIce campaign spearheaded by Mijente, a grassroots migrant-led network, is challenging the supply of technology to police immigration in the United States — but more work is required still, especially in relation to the environment.

Third, we need to ramp up direct action and agitation against Big Tech and the US empire. Sometimes it is hard to mobilize support behind seemingly esoteric topics, such as the opening of a cloud center in the Global South (e.g. in Malaysia) or the imposition of Big Tech software into the schools (e.g. in South Africa).

This is especially difficult in the South, where people must prioritize access to food, water, shelter, electricity, health care and jobs. However, successful resistance to developments like Facebook’s Free Basics in India and the construction of Amazon’s headquarters on sacred Indigenous land in Cape Town, South Africa show the possibility and potential of civic opposition.

These activist energies could go further and embrace the tactics of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which anti-apartheid activists used to target computer corporations selling equipment to the apartheid government in South Africa. Activists could build a #BigTechBDS movement, this time targeting the existence of giant tech corporations. Boycotts could cancel public sector contracts with tech giants and replace them with socialist People’s Tech solutions. Divestment campaigns could force institutions like universities to divest from the worst tech companies. And activists could pressure states to apply targeted sanctions to US, Chinese and other countries’ tech corporations.

Fourth, we must work to build tech worker cooperatives that can be the building blocks for a new digital socialist economy. There is a movement to unionize Big Tech, which can help protect tech workers along the way. But unionizing Big Tech is like unionizing the East India companies, arms manufacturer Raytheon, Goldman Sachs or Shell — it is not social justice and is likely to deliver only mild reforms.

Just as South African anti-apartheid activists rejected the Sullivan Principles — a set of rules and reforms for corporate social responsibility that allowed American companies to keep profits flowing from business in apartheid South Africa — and other mild reforms, in favor of strangling the apartheid system, we should aim to abolish Big Tech and the system of digital capitalism altogether. And this will require building alternatives, engaging with tech workers, not to reform the unreformable, but to help work out a just transition for the industry.

Finally, people from all walks of life should work collaboratively with tech professionals to develop the concrete plan that would make up a Digital Tech Deal. This needs to be taken as seriously as current green “deals” for the environment.

With a Digital Tech Deal, some workers — such as those in the advertisement industry — would lose their jobs, so there would have to be a just transition for workers in these industries. Workers, scientists, engineers, sociologists, lawyers, educators, activists and the general public could collectively brainstorm how to make such a transition practical.

Today, progressive capitalism is widely seen as the most practical solution to the rise of Big Tech. Yet these same progressives have failed to acknowledge the structural harms of capitalism, US-led tech colonization and the imperative of degrowth. We cannot burn down the walls of our house to keep ourselves warm.

The only practical solution is to do what is necessary to prevent us from destroying our one and only home — and this must integrate the digital economy. Digital socialism, made reality by a Digital Tech Deal, offers the best hope within the short time frame we have for drastic change, but will need to be discussed, debated and built. It is my hope that this article might invite readers and others to build collaboratively in this direction.

Friday 15 April 2022

Partygate – Tory MPs Bottle it, so now it is down to the British Public to remove Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appears to be riding out the scandal of holding lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street, in contravention of the laws in place at the time. Johnson, along with his next door neighbour, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, have received fines for one breach, with more expected to follow.

This is the first time that a serving prime minister (and Chancellor) have been found guilty of breaking the law, and I think that previous prime minister’s would have felt that they had to resign their post, but not Boris Johnson. As one of his former housemasters at Eton school reported, Johnson doesn’t think that rules apply to him. Indeed, he has pretty much made a career in politics on this basis.

In these circumstances, one might expect Tory MPs, who are well aware of how badly this whole saga has gone down with voters in their constituencies, to remove him by calling for a vote of no confidence in him, but very few have done so. I think some of them do see the importance of honesty and integrity, of which Johnson is completely lacking, but they appear to be nervous about bringing him down.

The most common reason that many are citing for their inaction, is that whilst there is the ongoing war in Ukraine, no change of leader can be contemplated. This view ignores history, where prime ministers have been changed, most notably Herbert Asquith, during in World War I, and Neville Chamberlain during in World War II. These were wars that Britain was actually fighting too, which is not the case with current conflict in Ukraine.

What real difference would it make if Johnson was replaced? None, I think. Somebody else can go around making breezy speeches, with no difference one way or the other, but many Tory MPs are taking refuge in this thinking. But this might change, and a look at previous Tory prime ministers who have been removed in recent times by their MPs, is instructive.

Margaret Thatcher, was brought down in 1990, a prime minister much more powerful and respected than Johnson, mainly over the unpopular Poll Tax policy. This led to defeat for the Tories in a byelection in Eastbourne in September 1990, normally a rock solid Tory constituency. She resigned in November of same the same year, having lost the confidence of her ministers.

Theresa May, was forced to resign in 2019, after it became clear that she would face a no confidence vote from her MPs. The Tories recorded only 8.8% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections earlier that year. Her premiership was dogged by a failure of MPs to agree with her attempts to get a post Brexit deal from the European Union.

So, we can see that the commonest factor in Tory MPs removing their sitting prime minister, is how well they see their prospects of retaining their seats in a future general election. Tory MPs were always well aware of Johnson’ shortcomings, but recognised that he was popular with the voters, and so this trumped all else.

Which brings us to the current situation. Is Johnson still a winner? Opinion polls suggest not, with 75% of those surveyed saying that they believe the prime minister to be a liar. The breaching of lockdown rules touches the public in a way that perhaps other issues do not. Most people followed the rules, and many have memories of not being able see loved ones, in some cases before these people died from Covid. They expected the people making these rules to follow them, like they did.

On 5 May local elections throughout the UK will take place. If voters reject the Tory party in huge numbers, over their outrage of the breaches of the lockdown rules, this will put pressure on Tory MPs to act, out of self-interest, if nothing else. There is also a Parliamentary byelection coming in Wakefield, a seat the Tories gained in 2019.

A harbinger of what may happen can be seen in recent local byelections. The Green party has gained two seats from the Tories over recent weeks. In Storrington and Washington and Lyme and Charmouth, they made impressive gains from the Tories. Will something similar happen in the upcoming local council elections? It may well be so.

The only way that Johnson will be forced out of office, is if the voters make it clear they are unhappy with him. At the end of the day, it is not about the integrity of the office of prime minister for Tory MPs, rather whether they think they have more chance of retaining their seats, with Johnson as prime minister.

For most people, somebody who breaks their own laws, and lies about it, is not a fit and proper person to hold the office of prime minister. It's over to you the voters, to remove this person.         

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Ecosocialist Manifesto – the Parti de Gauche (France)

The first round of the 2022 French presidential election will be held on 10 April 2022, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche standing as the candidate of Union Populaire, with a run off, if necessary on 24 April. The election will take place just before the 2022 legislative election, that will be held on 12 June with runoffs on 19 June, to elect the 577 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. 

This is an extract from the Parti de Gauche Ecosocialist Manifesto. The full Manifesto can be found here. 

Ecosocialism as a Necessary Contemporary Alternative 

In a context where years of climate change denial suddenly gave way to dystopia, we have to look at the situation with responsibility and clarity. Social inequalities are worsening, global fascism is rising, the climate is changing, biodiversity is eroding, global health crises are emerging: these are all warnings. Scientists are pushing for a rapid reorganization of the way we produce and a reevaluation of our needs. 

This requires that we change our philosophical outlook and our relationship with nature. Due to the inaction of past governments on the planet which were ignorant, irresponsible, or servile towards profit-driven lobbies, we have already lost 50 precious years since these risks were known. We know that the capitalist world will do anything to continue following its own interest and will not change by its own accord. 

Today, the crisis is not only social, democratic, or environmental - there is a systemic and paradigmatic crisis in our thermo-industrial era, known today as the Capitalocene. It is a crisis of capitalist exchange and exploitation. It created a dynamic where organized predation upon nature and workers come together. Our civilization is vulnerable to a chain reaction of effects caused by globalization, global finance, algorithmic control of societal norms, and the loss of manual skills and knowledge. 

The odds of a worldwide systemic collapse are unknown but we already know that we are surpassing important thresholds and natural limits. Of 10 global limits identified by a group of researchers in 2009, four have already been surpassed. Disasters continue to target the most vulnerable. With wildfires, droughts, floods, diminished harvests, health issues, and increased risks of conflicts, it is apparent that ecosystem health is a challenge for social justice, health, and peace. Human life on earth is at stake. 

Ecosocialism is a systemic analysis that states that ecology is not compatible with capitalism which necessitates productivism and global finance. Ecosocialism holistically analyses the social, environmental, economic, and democratic impacts of our current system. This analysis’ radicalism, which consists in observing the roots of our problems, allows us to avoid support for green capitalism or neoliberal visions of ecology. These two concepts allow a narrow course of action, addressing only the consequences of capitalism without addressing the causes of its problems to overturn it. 

To engage on these issues, we need to change the economic system, the organization of production, and social forces to be successful. The general interest is intertwined with the question of saving our ecosystem. We cannot hide a necessary clash of interests : we need to engage in a show of force against the global financial system and with those who believe in the interest of the few, rather than the vast majority. The construction of this balance of power presumes a project, a new utopian vision : a horizon for society which acts as an attainable goal but also as a motivation. 

Ecosocialism is a stationary lighthouse in a world in full turmoil. Our political responsibility doesn’t dwell on believing this or that hypothesis, declaring ourselves to be optimists or pessimists, but in observing facts, testifying to the truth, and acting with clear-headedness. It also implies showing who is accountable for systemic crises without making mistakes (the oligarchy and not the working class). We also have to illustrate environmental inequalities, debunk the “green” shams, rethink how human beings fit in our ecosystem, and build the beacon of a desirable future by assessing the dead-ends of the past. 

Ecosocialism is about reorienting the economy to meet people’s needs, establishing a maximum authorized income, implementing the “green rule,” relocalizing production, discussing the myth of growth, reducing our energy consumption, developing food sovereignty, reinventing our relationship with nature and other species. We must not forget the ideological and cultural battle, social struggles, resistance to oppression, or international solidarity. Ecosocialism draws the shape of a more harmonious, fairer world which could sustain the current shocks of our time. 

This Ecosocialist Manifesto translates these ideas into the form of a political manifesto consisting of 26 theses. It is a guide of common interest to save every tenth of a degree of the changing climate we can, save every scrap of endangered nature we can save, and absorb the social and biophysical damage already in progress. It is a precious tool to help us think and prepare for the world we wish to see tomorrow. It is today that we will build tomorrow. 

We must sow the seeds of the future now. Whatever happens, every party advocating for ecosocialism will have built the foundations of a new vision, a new imaginary order, unfamiliar collective stories, and a renewed social organisation and cosmogony to plant seeds bearing societal transformation. 

The National Executive Secretary of the Parti de Gauche (Party of the Left)

Sunday 3 April 2022

Dealing with Climate Catastrophe – The Metabolic Rift

 Written by Josh O'Sullivan and first published at iso aotearoa

On 16 March 2022 the Otago University Politics Programme hosted an online panel discussion on ‘Global Warming, Global Warning: The Politics of Climate Change’. The panelists were: James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change; Prof. Lisa Ellis; Assoc. Prof. Brian Roper; Sina Brown-Davis, Ngāti Whātua, Indigenous and climate activist; Adam Currie, Generation Zero; Jack Brazil, community activist; and Josh O’Sullivan, International Socialist Organisation. Here we publish Josh O’Sullivan’s speech. 

Kia ora tātou. Ko Josh O’Sullivan taku ingoa, ko Tāmaki Makaurau ahau, and I am here from the International Socialist Organisation to present the case for ecosocialism.

I am also a high school science teacher. This topic is the hardest to teach to our ākonga. It is a complex topic for sure, but more importantly it’s hard to present such a dire situation and only talk about miniscule individual actions. The urgency of this crisis and what we are being told to do are obviously counter-posed.

Our individual contributions are a drop in the bucket when it comes to dealing with climate change and proposed technological solutions lack the scale and speed necessary to actually deal with the problem. Even these solutions are only viable as long as we can make profit from them.

The scale of the crisis is overpowering, and it is nothing less than patronising to tell people to ride their bike or buy local seasonal foods to reduce their carbon footprint when the vast majority of emissions come from industry. Just 100 companies and the commodities they have produced are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s historical emissions. Collective action is the only thing that can even make a dent in our woefully unprepared society. A planned economy that provides for the needs of people to ensure a just transition to a liveable future is desperately needed, as has already been stated by Professor Roper.

Previous and current governments in New Zealand have been hesitant to disrupt the economic paradigm adopted since the 1980s to have government-funded work programs. But it is still the state that has the capability to marshal the productive forces in society.

We could look at even more radical options like nationalizing extractive industries to prevent further extraction of carbon we cannot burn; building mass transit that actually works, rather than setting out a tender process to get the lowest bidder; renationalising the electricity system; ensuring water is used for human consumption here, rather than bottled and sold by a private company on the other side of the world; ensuring that we have a working food plan so that we are not building housing on the only place in the country that can grow our vegetables; or trying to run irrigation through a desert to farm dairy cows. 

Beyond that we would need banks to be nationally owned in order to fund these transitions away from things that bear the most profit into other areas that bear the most sustainability. 

But even all of these radical ideas do not change the fundamental nature of our economic system that ensures that environmental concerns are secondary to profit.

The conversation around climate change always seems to focus on our emissions, but the full reality of what we face is far larger than the amount of carbon dioxide being produced and put into the atmosphere. Our entire relationship with nature over the past 200 years has been predicated on an economic system that sees environmental damage as someone else’s problem and profit as the only solution.

From plastic and chemical pollution, open pit mining, deforestation, mono agriculture, overfishing, ocean acidification, the loss of biodiversity; all of these issues compound each other. At risk with the worsening climate crisis is not just our comfort, but access to the earth’s collective resources – water, land, and clean air – as well as the mass displacement of millions of people who will become known as climate refugees. 

There are no wilds left unconquered, everywhere we have transformed the last vestiges of nature into something man made in order to extract profit. The common link between all of these issues is the fundamental relationships in the economics of our society, namely capitalism. 

Capitalism’s disregard for the environment can be linked through a concept called the metabolic rift. In the simplest terms, the metabolic rift is a breakdown in the healthy functioning of the metabolic process human society depends on, in both its external aspect, the exchange of material between human society and nature, and its internal aspect, the circulation of material within society. 

The making of goods, of objects, occurs from people working, labouring, on the natural world. In pre-class societies, the two ends of that process – the natural resources and the end product – are related in a more or less direct and transparent way.

The raw materials required for the production of basic necessities like food, shelter and so on were mostly sourced from the immediate surroundings of settlements.

In this context, it would be very obvious if the metabolism had broken down in some way—say by an area of land being eroded due to the excessive clearing of trees. And it would be similarly clear if the process of exchange of goods within the community broke down, and the health of one section of the population began to suffer as a result. 

With the emergence of class society, when a minority of the population came to live off the surplus produced by others, the link between the natural basis of human society and the lives of those who made the important decisions became more tenuous. 

As Marx saw it, however, it’s only with the emergence of capitalism from the seventeenth century onwards that the link is severed completely. Even the wealthiest of feudal lords still had some connection to the land. Their power was bound with a particular estate. If the feudal lord failed to manage the land sustainably, if he logged all the forests, poisoned the waterways and so on, he would undermine not only the source of his material wealth, but his identity and being as a lord. 

The alienation of the land—its reduction to the status of property that can be bought and sold—is what for Marx constitutes the foundation stone of the capitalist system. The wealth and power of the capitalist class doesn’t depend on their possession of this or that particular piece of property, but rather on their control over capital. Capital can include physical property, such as farmland, machinery, factories, offices, but it is by its very nature fluid and transferable. If a capitalist buys up some land and then destroys it, they can simply take the profits they’ve made from it and move their money elsewhere. 

At the same time as it completely severs any semblance of connection with the land among the ruling class, capitalism also severs it among workers. The peasants under feudalism had a direct and transparent dependence on the land for their subsistence. But with this came a degree of independence that isn’t afforded to workers under capitalism. 

The peasants had to give up a portion of their produce to the lord, but outside of that they were relatively free to labour as it best suited them. And no matter how unfree they were in a political sense, their capacity to sustain themselves was at least guaranteed by their direct access to the land and their possession of the tools necessary to work it. 

For capitalism to be put on firm footing, this direct relationship of the peasants to the land had to be severed. They were, over a number of centuries, forcibly “freed” from the land in order that they could be “free” to be employed in the rapidly expanding capitalist industries. Workers, for Marx, were defined by their lack of ownership of the means of production. They were no longer dependent on the land for their subsistence, but rather on the preparedness of a capitalist to give them a job and pay them a wage. 

This process of replacement of feudalism by capitalism is also the same process repeated wherever capitalism found new lands to covet and new populations to become workers; this is the story of colonisation. In Aotearoa this same process of the alienation of land occurred, starting with the purchasing of land through the New Zealand Company, then the invasion of the Waikato, and then, the most effective method, through the Native Land Court. 

All of this to turn land into capital, something that can be traded, sold and worked on; and also to force the Māori population into a low-wage workforce on their own land. Everywhere capitalism has sprouted it has reforged the social relationships that existed previously into a division between those that have capital and those that only have their labour to sell. 

The fact that the capitalist class has no real incentive to protect the environment, and the working class has no control over it, lies at the heart of capitalism’s unique destructiveness. The “logic” of capitalism is one in which maintaining the health of society’s metabolism, either externally in its relationship with nature, or internally in its distribution of goods among the population, only features to the extent that it assists the accumulation of wealth by the ruling class. 

The one thing the capitalist class cares about above all else is profit. No matter what the consequences, whether on the natural environment, human health or anything else, if business owners can continue to expand their pool of capital, they will see it as a success.  

Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible, yet nowhere is this tautology being acknowledged.

We cannot allow politicians to convince us to compromise so that the engines of profit and accumulation can continue to turn. Because there is no compromise with the laws of nature. Paraphrasing a tourism business leader I heard on RNZ today, businesses can’t turn green unless they are in the black. 

That is exactly the problem. We cannot bargain with Papatūānuku to make sure our economy survives, or to give us more time to adapt. Change needs to happen now. Land back to indigenous cultures and their self-determination is an essential element for this –b for these colonised peoples have the memory of living before capitalism twisted all our relationships with nature. 

It is a stark choice for our species in the next few decades; either we radically transform the very nature of society or we suffer the eventual extinction of our species. We need to talk about radical solutions, because we don’t have time for anything less. We need to dismantle capitalism.