Felicity Dowling writes: What next for socialists and all those who wish to defend and extend the rights and the wealth of the working class, of the poor, of women, of disabled people, of migrants, of oppressed groups and of those struggling to tackle the climate catastrophe? The situation we face is truly dire and of a different scale even from the horrors of austerity and Thatcherism. 13 years to save the climate gives our work urgency. Hungry children give our work urgency. We need systemic change: that should be our aim. Brutal reality tells us that the powers ranged against us are huge, but not insuperable. We can challenge them with truly mass action but building that mass action is a huge task.
Right now, in the UK, the forces for change, the forces of the left and trade unions are in disarray following the defeat of Corbyn and the victory of the chaos capitalists around Johnson, Cummings, Gove, Hunt et al. The turn to the right, and use of expulsions and suspensions under Keir Starmer, does not bode well for socialists in Labour. The Corbyn project mobilised people in tens of thousands, though with a promise that just elections could change society. That constituency remains to be reignited at another time. The defeat was a lost battle not a lost war. Our enemies are still forcing through their appalling policies that cost our people in lives, in our health, in our livelihoods, our happiness and in the future of our species here on Earth.
Resistance to what is being done to our class and to the planet is crucial. Building a powerful alternative narrative to that pushed by the government and its media is crucial. In the midst of multiple crises, building an alternative narrative and organisation to the Conservatives, an alternative to the ideas to the right of Labour, is an absolute imperative. “It’s a heavy load” as the old song says, “and it will take some real strength”.
Left Unity hopes to build an organisation like Die Linke and other parties in the European Left Party: one that is eco-socialist, feminist, internationalist and intent on transformation of society. We hope that will be an alternative voice, a fearless voice for socialism and resistance. Left Unity has real differences with the Corbyn project on the attitude to migrants, on our characterisation of Brexit as a reactionary anti-workers, anti-migrant, anti-environmental project, against nuclear weapons and war – and more. However Left Unity will also be a voice that works in a comradely way with the left in Labour, with those who share the aims of system change, of building resistance and who are prepared to challenge the dominant narrative with confidence and elan. In a reduced number of areas in the country, Labour still operates as a feature in defence of the communities. It would be crazy for people to abandon that. In those areas of the country where Labour is moribund, corrupt, pro-austerity and reactionary it is counterproductive for socialists to waste their time there, though that is a tactical, not a moral decision. In Labour the work should be defensive of socialist ideals but proactive work must go on in the communities with or without local or national labour support. The challenge should be, where will your ideas gain most traction, where will you recruit more people to eco-socialism, how will you construct the best defence for your people?
The priorities must be to organise for the defence of our people and our planet, in every way available to us and however small the first steps seem. These methods of self defence can included mutual aid, renewed and regenerated trade union movements, major campaigns and social movements across civil society. In each and every available way we have to proclaim in deeds and words that another world is possible and that together resistance has power. The power we build through a thousand little resistance struggles shape the forces of the future, forces that could overwhelm capitalism and its poverty and destruction. Organisation at grass roots, at national and at international levels builds the opposition to capitalism, and en route lets us feed our children, care for our elders, and protect the climate, albeit in limited ways until we can win an overwhelming drive for change.
Mutual aid to keep each other alive, campaigns to defend the NHS, against the climate disaster are all essential. But equally essential is presenting and developing the ideas, old and new, that win the hearts and minds and willingness to act. We face serious difficulties challenging the narrative of the mainstream and social media. Left Unity aims to maintain friendly relations with all of the left whilst robustly defending our own political programme, not as doctrine but as work that has been done consistently and carefully since we were founded. We are open to change but change that allows discussion and debate.
As supporters of democracy we should participate in and hopefully renew the democratic processes, that are available to us. Left Unity will if required stand candidates in elections in order to promote our ideas and to defend workers’ living standards.
We face a stage of capitalism, beyond neoliberalism, one where chaos makes money, and destruction is shrugged off. One where a handful of men own enormous wealth and wealth that gives them overwhelming power. The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa.
The political apparatus linked to this money is often stupid, dangerous and unpleasant but as yet lacks an organised popular right-wing base (though that is a different debate).
We face economic, political and climate crises, and endemic war at a time when the working classes, when women, and civil society, far from being cowed, have risen in struggle repeatedly in many countries of the world. The ruling class despite their economic power are not having an easy ride.
Despite severe repression in many countries, and despite great hardship, the class is not fully defeated. Globally, resistance on a huge scale is possible. We are not in the 1930s.
The control of wealth in so few hands (and hands which are so dedicated to short term gain) means that the ruling class has been able to weaponize the mainstream and social media and to easily manipulate public opinion. They can plant ideas that then grow in people’s minds until challenged by harsh reality.
The political class, those educated to become politicians of the left and the right, have been educated in the ideas of post-modernism and in “the end of history” era, who see capitalism as a permanent reality and are themselves educated to serve the political system interchangeably with the media, big charities and big business. We saw this very clearly in the defections from Labour under Corbyn. In the UK there are only a handful of MPs who see themselves as representing the working class and socialism in Parliament.
The crisis in capitalism is shown in the destruction of public services, of manufacturing industry, of long-held rights, and of climate imperatives, and environmental safety. These are all are in the firing line of the quick-money, hugely wealthy capitalists. The regimes in the UK, in USA, in Brazil, Hungary – and to an extent in Australia – act as though no one can stop them; that they are super and supra-human. South Africa too is ruled by an elite of very wealthy people linked to the global billionaires.
However, the destruction of public services has proved catastrophic in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. The functioning of an urban society requires some level of public service. The crucial role of essential workers has been brutally demonstrated during this pandemic. The need for a responsible and organised system of government has also been demonstrated by its very absence in the UK.
The coronavirus is itself probably a product of intensive farming and the destruction of habitat. It is clear, whatever its origin, that the outbreak could have been managed without it becoming a pandemic, without a loss of life similar to that of the May Blitz. It is also clear that other outbreaks will happen in the future and must be better managed. It could have been managed but that the ruling class had destroyed the infrastructure and damaged the NHS.
The privatisation of the NHS is one of the largest and most valuable privatisation projects in the world.
The willingness of the ruling class to destroy and to impoverish even unto death has been shown by austerity. We need to remember that impoverishment is a deliberate tactic not just to steal a few measly pounds from poor families but to act as a mechanism to instil fear and compliance into working people, making them take any wage rather than none.
The rule of the extremely rich, of the climate despoilers, of the polluters, of the warmongers, must be challenged, if humanity is to have a viable future.
“A handful, a few tens of thousands of enormously large companies, a smaller handful – less than twenty major banking institutions – decide alone on everything. François Morin, a top financial expert who knows this field, has said that less than twenty financial groups control 90% of the operations of the global integrated monetary and financial system. If you add to this some fifteen other banks you go from 90% to some 98%. It is a mere handful of banks. That is centralisation, concentration of power – not of property, which remains disseminated, but that’s of less importance – the point is how property is controlled. This has also led to control of political life. We are now far from what bourgeois democracy of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was.” Samir Amin in conversation with Walter Baier.
Positive change within capitalism happens when the social movement for that change is powerful or when the ruling class fears the organised working class, or when growth of profits is so large it is worth making concessions to the workers and social movements.
When workers’ living standards are driven down, the bosses, the employers, gain but only in the short to medium term. Longer term, it exacerbates capitalism’s crisis. There have been significant negative changes in working class conditions of life before, changes not always recognised immediately but still real and often painful. They have not always been announced and signalled, indeed these changes are often described as positive by the press and media.
In 1870 in the US, workers living standards were driven down and did not recover for decades. In Thatcher’s time workers lost rights and wealth they had enjoyed since World War Two, and to an extent even before that. In the US workers’ living standards fell dramatically and relentlessly after 1970.
Possibly most dramatically, with the ending of the communist governments and the start of gangster capitalism in Russia, living standards fell brutally.
“In Russia, the steep upsurge in mortality and the decline in life expectancy were the biggest ever recorded anywhere in peacetime and in the absence of physical catastrophes, such as wars, plague, or famine.”
In the global south, the ruling class has in the past used coups and deliberate chaos, destabilisation and war, to disrupt and change regimes it disapproved of, from the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, to the death of Allende in Chile, and the recent attempts at regime change in Venezuela. To this day there are failed states which do not protect their people but still manage to ship great wealth out to the grand corporations.
The wealth of capitalists is controlled by ever fewer individuals. According to Oxfam earlier this year, the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population. Thinking of the numbers dead from Covid-19 just in this country throws that number into perspective. Just over 2,000 people own such wealth. We have had more people than that on many a small demonstration.
Since the time of Rosa Luxemburg we have understood that capitalism makes its wealth not just from production but from “primitive accumulation” or theft. From the highland clearances in Scotland to the enclosures in England its a straight line to privatisation of public services. From murderous colonisation it’s a straight line to the despoliation of the Amazon and destructive farming. When capitalism moves into primitive accumulation the rights of the poor, including the right to life, are utterly disregarded. To facilitate primitive accumulation the hyper-exploitation and abuse of women is essential.
So we face the threat of such an assault on our living standards again today.
Capitalism though triumphant over the working class (for now) is nonetheless in crisis. In the classic model of capitalism, the bosses would not need the hyper-exploitation of the workers, but would recognise that paying workers well creates a market for their goods. But that requires much longer scale planning and forethought, beyond the hedge fund and the quick-buck capitalists who dominate the global economy.
We have 13 years to save the climate and keep the planet habitable for humans. There is a certain urgency in our work.
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