Cinzia Arruzza’s Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism (published in English edition by Merlin Press, available from Resistance Books)
Women’s liberation has always been at the heart of authentic revolutionary politics. Marxists have long insisted that there can be no socialist revolution worth the name without women’s liberation, and that women’s liberation itself will only be possible with the overthrow of capitalism. Revolutionaries have at times forgotten this, however, and the consequence has been not only that women have suffered as women, that they have been betrayed and their oppression intensified instead of ended, but also that working class organisations have themselves undergone a process of bureaucratization in which everyone suffers. Cinzia Arruza’s review of the history of women’s struggle in and alongside the socialist movement draws attention to a repeated problem that we must learn from today; the heat of the struggle against the rule of capital opens up immense possibilities for the liberation of all the oppressed, but it can also, at the very same time, increases the pressure on the organisations of the working class to close ranks and so shut out the voices of women.
When women are active participants and leaders in historical struggles, those possibilities are already put on the agenda in the everyday practice of the worker’s movement. We can see that the forms of organisation that women develop are often not only far in advance of the traditional stereotypically male ways of organising, but that there is, in the process of the struggle, an anticipation, what is sometimes called a ‘prefiguring’ of what kind of society we are aiming to build. Social relations of solidarity and respect are created that energise people to believe that with socialist revolution another kind of world is indeed possible. Arruzza reminds us why we are revolutionaries, with inspiring accounts of the necessary leap made from individual strategies, of the demands for equality of the sexes in the French Revolution in 1789, to collective activity when thousands of women participated in the Paris Commune of 1871. The popular image of the ‘pétroleuses’ – women with paraffin supporting the rebellion – was part of the demonization of the Communards, for example, and drew attention to the hatred of women’s self-organisation on the part of the regime.
The hope of liberation
At times when the prospects of change seem so remote, when radical political life is so grim, Arruzza shows us that the sparks of hope and the development of strategies to break the bourgeois ideological consensus – the fiction that everyone is united in defence of the way things are now – often come from women. The attempts by Marx, and particularly Engels, at the time of the First International in the late nineteenth century to make sense of the power of the family in relation to private property and the state now become ever-more burning questions, and so Engels’ work is returned to at different points in the book. The first chapter of the book, which ranges from the French Revolution through to the Spanish and Chinese Revolutions, includes detailed discussion of the way that the Russian October Revolution of 1917 was itself begun by women in Petrograd striking in celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March. It becomes clear through those events in the months leading to the revolution that the promise of socialist revolution is that the diversity of ways of being human are at last to be given an opportunity to flower, but the trap that revolutionary Marxists have too often fallen into is to enforce ‘unity’ which then sabotages, even before the event, that promise.
It also becomes clear through those events and the debates that were made possible by them that just as the name for the theory and practice of the revolution against capitalism for many would be ‘Marxism’, so the name for the theory and practice of women’s liberation would be ‘feminism’. Feminism is a distinctive contribution to the politics of liberation, our politics, and operates as a diverse constellation of positions coming into connection with each other and then with Marxism, operating not as one fixed truth but, we might say, ‘dialectically’ – in a process of contradictory movement and change – as strategies that are usually today referred to in the plural as ‘feminisms’. This pluralisation of a key element of revolutionary politics, a pluralisation from which Marxist have to learn, is not either reduced to ‘leaders’ (though the appendix to the English edition of this book does give very useful little descriptions of key figures referred to in the text which marks their contributions to feminism).
Feminism in the world
Onto the world stage steps a political movement that is able grasp how and why Marxism must also be concerned with women’s liberation, and from that there is the opening up of questions about the ‘intersectional’ (as some feminists would now say) nature of the link between the exploitation of workers under capitalism and the many other forms of oppression – of gender, sexuality, ‘race’, to name but three – that capitalism requires to function. And this feminist movement, Arruzza shows, can only develop if it is autonomous, not only working with the worker’s organisations and revolutionary Marxists but able to step back and reveal the limitations of a simple orthodox male-defined way of understanding Marxist politics. The ‘first wave’ of feminism which we see at work around the Russian Revolution, in the social democratic parties of the Second International in continental Europe and among the suffragettes in Manchester, for example, radicalised the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘liberal’ women’s movement. The ‘rights’ of women to vote and then, for socialists, to participate in trades union struggle had a dynamic which led to debates about separate organisation but also about what ‘patriarchy’ – the rule of men over women – as a system of oppression was in relation to capitalism.
The second chapter of the book traces through the way that these debates over the nature of patriarchy were not abstract disputes over terminology but were embedded in the practice of the workers movement in power. It is here that we see the rise of Stalinism as not only a betrayal of the working class but as a systematic turning back of the gains made by women during the revolution. The crimes of the bureaucracy were an indictment not only of a regime that made compromises with international capitalism – justified in the phrase ‘socialism in one country’ and then finding expression in the claim that there should be ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world – but of a patriarchal regime happy to agree with its capitalist allies that a woman’s place is in the home under the thumb of their man. In this way the bureaucracy was guaranteed the power that the bourgeois family has always enabled, millions of little points of authority that would reproduce and strengthen the power of the state. It is against that background that Arruzza is able to explain how the Communist Parties of the Third International faithfully relayed the worst of the reactionary justification of power from Moscow, but also how in Italy, for example, there were revolts in and against the Party, and how in Italy, Britain and the United States there were emerging women’s liberation and socialist feminist movements that connected with a new revolutionary new left. These were to become known as the ‘second wave’ feminists, and they also set the scene for a serious rethinking of the role of feminism in the Fourth International.
The motif the book signalled in the title, ‘marriages and divorces’, also frames much of the debate around the role of the family as the linchpin of power under capitalism, and it allows us to appreciate how this capitalism is always already necessarily patriarchal. The third chapter then goes in some detail into the anthropological debates arising from Engels’ work and the attempts to make sense of the relationship between ‘class’ and ‘gender’. The question whether ‘gender’ oppression should itself be understood as class oppression is raised, and the theoretical arguments of the ‘wages for housework’ forms of feminism are teased out. Here we have something quite unusual for a book even in our revolutionary Marxist tradition, which is that complex feminist debates over the role of language and psychoanalysis are taken seriously, explored, explained and weighed up rather than quickly summed up and dismissed. The book tackles important issues about ‘recognition’ of difference and ‘redistribution’ of resources, and raises the stakes of these ideas bringing them out of academic forums into the real world.
This book is not only a review of debates, something that takes forward the self-characterisation of our politics as ‘feminist’, but it is also an intervention, including in our own organisations. And it is here that the ‘performative’ nature of sexual difference is described, the strand of theory and practice that is known as ‘queer theory’. This queer theory taken from the work of Judith Butler is key to the development of what is sometimes known as ‘third wave’ feminism. This work is then taken up explicitly by way of a discussion of different versions of ‘dual systems’ theories – that is, theories which articulate class and gender oppression as two different orders of power – asking the question in the title of the fourth and final chapter as to whether it is possible to construct a ‘queer union’ between Marxism and feminism.
The book draws on the experiences of generations of activists, feminist and Marxist, and the debates in this book now, of course, resonate with the experience of activists faced with the bitter betrayal of feminist and Marxist politics inside more than one revolutionary organisation today. Those particular experiences inform the way the book will be read. I read the book as part of a reading group in Manchester (which included supporters of Socialist Resistance, Anti Capitalist Initiative, International Socialist Network and Plan C), and many critical points were made in the course of our meetings. We puzzled over whether the book was too focussed on Europe (with the sections on China, for example, still framed by the way Western Marxists have debated the impact of Maoism). We wanted to know more about the impact of Black feminism, and about the intersection between feminism, Marxism and questions of disability and mental health. Well, we acknowledged that in a relatively short and concise book you cannot have everything, not yet anyway. (In a recent television interview the Labour Party leader wanted to appear reasonable and said we did not want the earth; that is not true, we do!)
An intriguing absence from the book as one produced within the tradition of the Fourth International today is the question of ‘nature’ and ecological thought. The stereotypical representation of women as being closer to nature would, we felt, be worth exploring further, and the masculine domination of the earth that intensifies alienation of people from their own bodies and from nature as such (as Marx himself points out) could have been addressed. In its English translation, at least, the terms ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ were occasionally used in relation to the participation of women in cities and the predicament of their sisters in the countryside. This privileging of the industrial working class over the peasantry is something that is being questioned, of course, as we integrate ecology into our politics and as our organisations takes root in what is sometimes still treated, in colonialist and imperialist discourse, as the less ‘developed’ parts of the world.
Endings and beginnings
The crux of the final chapter appeared to lie in the optimistic claim that ‘Queer theory seeks to deconstruct gender, as socialism seeks to deconstruct class’. But if that were true, and it is a claim that is not really followed through in the chapter which is actually, despite the title, quite light on ‘queer theory’, then we need at least to ask: whether this once again consigns queer theory to a treatment of gender, leaving the socialists to ‘deconstruct’ class (a division of labour that is questioned throughout the rest of the book); whether it means that the socialist deconstruction of class should not itself also be queer (that is, throwing into question categories of identity and showing how these categories are ‘performed’ in the service of power by those who adopt them); and why the relationship between ‘class’ and ‘gender’ should not itself be ‘queered’ (so that feminist analysis of political economy, for example, might throw into question standard Marxist categories and assumptions about what counts as ‘growth’). The queer movement, a radical questioning of categories of gender identity and then of all forms of identity has much more wide-ranging political consequences (as we can see in Judith Butler’s recent refusal to map her own tactical adoption of the identity of ‘Jew’ onto the identity of ‘Zionist’ in her critique of Israel).
Working class politics would look and feel very different, for example, if the second wave feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ (a slogan that actually reactivated concerns of many ‘first wave’ activists) was really taken up inside trade union and party organisations. Routine brain-numbing and morale-sapping meetings feed the needs of those who want to be ‘leaders’, and feminism shows us why these leaders are so often men. And our politics would look very different, for example, if we really had ‘queer unions’ that were devoted not so much to defence of the ‘family wage’ but were working to dismantle family structures that enforce the power of little leaders in every household. We work so much of the time with the assumption that there are certain kinds of identity that need to be defended, and given the ideological assault by the state and media on our own history of attempts to build a better world that is understandable.
However, the idea that ‘queer’ theory might be brought into some relationship with Marxism would disturb the identities we take for granted, perhaps usefully so. Queer feminism gives a vital extra twist to an argument made by revolutionary Marxists against nationalism and bureaucratic rule that the main enemy is at home. It would certainly disturb the idea that there is one united theory, one way of understanding the world and one way of doing politics that is true, and that the others are false. This is a path-breaking contribution, opening up many paths. It becomes clear by the end of this great book that a ‘comprehensive liberation project’, as Arruzza puts it, cannot be forged through mashing the two realities of class and gender together. This is open feminism working alongside open Marxism, open to each other.
Dave Kellaway reviews Conversations with Charlie Dec. 2013 pp192 available from Resistance Books for £6 including postage and packing
As a 25 year revolutionary South African born Charlie Van Gelderen was a delegate at the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 in Paris. When he died in 2001 he was the final living link with that small group of militants who had tried to keep the continuity of revolutionary Marxism alive under the enormous pressure of fascism and Stalinism. I remember a well-attended memorial meeting for Charlie was held after he died in Conway Hall. Just last weekend on the 100th anniversary of his birth his daughter, Tessa, organised a special meeting for family and friends to launch a small book of his writings and a long interview. Ironically it was held in the midst of the celebration of Mandela’s life. Charlie always worked to build the solidarity movement here but also tried to build the left currents critical of the ANC’s essentially reformist approach. He worked and with and knew many of the more left-wing opponents of apartheid such as Neville Alexander or Tabat.
At the meeting Tessa admitted modestly that she herself had questioned the point of having a 100th anniversary event. It was not really her dad’s style. However Charlie’s writings and ideas had not been collected together in one place and so the event was as much about a book launch as anything else. We should be very grateful that she did put all the effort into producing this little gem of a book – ably assisted by Terry Conway, Pam Singer, Ted Crawford and Mark Shotter.
Charlie was known well enough on the radical left and among the South African/African émigré and solidarity milieu and he also won positions within the mass movement as a councillor and trade union representative. However he is probably not a household name among most left activists today. So why is his book relevant to us today?
More than the insights into strategy and tactics which are scattered throughout the book, the long, often rambling interview with Mark Shotter really grabs the reader by the lapels and says a life in politics, fighting all systems of oppression and exploitation can be fulfilling, stimulating and fun. Yes, Charlie was never dull and never, never totally obsessed with politics. He knew that you needed space and time away from another political meeting or leafleting whether it was playing bridge, watching Coronation street or just organising a damn good party. One of the criticisms of the degeneration of some of the British radical left is how it can take in young militants and burn them out with 24 hour political activity.
Humour bubbles out of the pages when he regales us with gossipy stories about ‘womaniser’ George Brown, who later became number two in Wilson’s Labour party, or about Ted Willis, creator of the TV series Dixon of Dock Green, who as a Stalinist made sure Charlie did not get to speak at a meeting. Through some of these stories you also get an idea about how attitudes to women in the radical movement were not particularly progressive on many occasions.
His accounts of militancy as an entryist in the Labour League of Youth in the 1940s are illustrative of how different the Labour Party was in the past. He talks of branch meetings in Islington of a 100 or more where the Stalinists and the Trotskyists slugged it out – the CP were also entryist at the time. At that time and through into the 1950s the LP really did organisationally and ideologically organise hundreds of thousands of workers in a way that has totally changed today. Today many Labour parties exist as small ‘managerial’ support groups for councillors or nurseries for future councillors and operate mostly at election times.
Another theme very relevant to the situation today when the SWP is fracturing and there is serious talk of regroupment, is his criticism of how the revolutionary left has been far too quick to split at the first opportunity in the most unprincipled way. He cites the way that the alliance between two opposing factions in the 1980s IMG forced the third component out of the organisation and consequently led to its overall demise. At the same time Charlie was already voicing some of the criticisms made by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy in their book Beyond Capitalism on the need to re-evaluate democratic centralism:
“I’m a bit of a renegade on this question of the Leninist party. I think that Lenin’s conception of the Leninist party before the revolution was correct for a country where the activities were illegal, but I don’t think it’s correct or a country like Britain, you see?” pg. 100
He criticises Trotsky and Lenin for their shortcomings in the early 1920s on the issue of banning political tendencies and defending socialist democracy. Charlie also makes a very pertinent point – in the light of the fuss created by the wording on the transition from capitalism in the Left Unity constitution – when he defends the idea that a variable degree of private ownership of business will remain after central power of capitalism is defeated.
“But I don’t think that immediately after the revolution you’re going to nationalise everything. And I think that as far ahead as we could see, maybe a century or more you could have pockets of private enterprise, small-scale but maybe small-scale industry and farmers” pg 99
Activists interested in the history of the British Trotskyist movement will get some useful background in this book. There are pen portraits of the notorious Gerry Healy, fellow south African Ted Grant – who became leader of the Militant, predecessor to today’s Socialist Party – and of somebody else with a Jewish background, Tony Cliff. The latter famously turned up at Charlie’s very modest flat and said there was loads of space compared to conditions in Palestine so that he and Chanie (his partner) were going to move in the following week! Actually Charlie recounts that it was great fun living with Cliff and that the latter was very correct in his behaviour, paying for all telephone calls. What comes out is how the correct approach to the Labour Party and labourism was often the basis for divisions and splits. His two articles in the book – arguing from both sides of the debate about entry captures this well.
The articles on South Africa, which are mainly from the early 1990s when the crucial negotiations on transition were carried out, have stood the test of time insofar as his point ‘ South Africa may be non-racist but it will remain capitalist’ (pg 161) is undoubtedly the case today. The article supports WOSA (Workers Organisation for Socialist Action) leader Neville Alexander’s call for a workers party in South Africa. Recent developments, such as the emergence of the EFF and one major union’s moves to discuss that, show the call is still relevant today. Anyone watching Question Time from Johannesburg the other week will have seen there is a significant gap opening up between not just many radical activists and the ANC but also between its corrupt government and broad masses of the population.
Finally Charlie always had a sense of proportion. If you re-read the speech he made at the 1998 international youth camp on why he was right in 1938 to help found a Fourth International it is remarkably free of the bombast you get from the Trotskyist sect groups:
“We cannot take refuge in blaming the objective conditions (for why we were unable to make any real impact)…perhaps if we had had a strong leadership and a united international we could have made some impression…sectarian splits have been a chronic ailment in our movement.” Pgs 173/4
If we can take one thing from the life of Charlie we should take his advice about reversing the centrifugal impulse of the revolutionary left in order to try and bring them together in honest, transparent regroupment. As long as there is broad agreement about the central tasks of the day we can continue our debates about those and everything else.
In the meantime if you want a good read over the holidays you can do worse than this – a bit of theory and analysis but lots of humanity and joy. What a pity that the conversation is not a current online blog because I sure there would have been many people like me who would love to butt in and ask for more detail, more gossip and more discussion.
Price: £11 from Resistance Books, 163 pages.
Published in association with Merlin Press, London, and the IIRE, Amsterdam.
What should be done to resolve the climate crisis? Tanuro argues that government measures – eco-taxes, commodification of natural resources, and carbon trading – do not tackle the drive for profit. Evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other sources demonstrates the impossibility of a sustainable “green capitalism”.
Climate degradation comes with the “natural” functioning of capitalism – a system based on the accumulation of capital (in particular the functioning of the energy system required by this accumulation process). An “emancipatory project” to overcome the impending crisis needs to recognize natural constraints and aim for a fundamental redefinition of social wealth. Tanuro uses the Marxist theory of value to explain ecological crisis. He addresses a failing in Marx’s ecology: an inadequate appreciation of the crucial implications of capitalism’s reliance on non-renewable fossil-fuel resources. He challenges both mainstream Green strategy and traditional Left alternatives. He points to solutions: “de-growth”, “re-localisation” and the decentralisation of production are necessary to limit global warming.
The book includes a critique of popular writers on the environmental crisis, ranging from Jared Diamond to Hans Jonas, it discusses the economic and technological transition scenarios, and includes a critical assessment of the contributions of Marxist writers such as John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Ernest Mandel.
Originally published in French as L’Impossible Capitalisme Vert by Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 2010. This English edition has a Preface and an Introduction which brings the book up to date with latest developments.
ISBN 978-0-85036-646-4 paperback
What they say about the book
The climate crisis is at a critical moment while millions despair that no action is being taken. The difficulties our “world leaders” have in taking meaningful action do not spring out of nowhere but from their refusal to understand that this crisis is the consequence of the globalised, neoliberal economic system. This book argues that we cannot simply green our current society, but that we need a more thorough, more fundamental social transformation. We also need to ensure that the struggle for a better world has built into its DNA the pursuit of an ecologically sustainable society.
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales
A lucid and rigorous demonstration that climate change cannot be overcome unless capitalism is overcome. The scourge of humanity is also the scourge of nature. This is a great achievement: putting forth the necessary contours of the direction that must be taken if we are to be equal to the greatest challenge ever faced by humankind. Joel Kovel, author The Enemy of Nature .
About Daniel Tanuro
Daniel Tanuro is an agricultural engineer. His previously published articles include “21st Century Socialists must be Ecosocialists”, in “The Global Fight for Climate Justice”, Ian Angus (ed.), and “Marxism, Energy, and Ecology: The Moment of Truth”, published in Capitalism Nature Socialism.
How to get the book
Post a cheque for the sum of £13 (£11 plus £2 p&p) made out to ‘Resistance’, along with your name and address, to Resistance Books, PO Box 62732, London, SW2 9GQ.
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Trade-unions, the anti-cuts campaigns, the peace movement and the left are all getting ready to march on Sunday 29 September at the Tory party conference in Manchester. The message is simple: no to austerity, defend the NHS, we should not pay for their crisis.
The Tory chancellor claims that there are signs that the economy is moving out of recession. But what Osborne does not explain is who is paying for this recovery. The gap between the rich and the poor never ceases to increase with bankers earnings are at pre-crisis levels and a drop in earnings for the rest. Households have lost an average of £1,300 since 2010. There are over 50,000 households affected by the bedroom tax. And UNITE the union estimates that there are over 5million workers on zero hour contracts. So there is no recovery for working people, the unemployed and pensioners.
The defeat in Parliament for Government’s motion for war in Syria shows it is increasingly weak and vulnerable. Nobody believes that the NHS is safe in the Tories hands as more and more of its services are privatised.
It is still possible to win the fight against austerity and in defence of public services. That’s why it is important that all of us converge on Manchester to tell the Tories that is time to go!
After the 29th September, we will need to throw our weight behind the unions taking actions in defence of services, jobs and conditions. The NUT and NASUWT members are striking on the 1 and 17 October. The CWU is balloting for action while the government is preparing to privatise Royal Mail. Firefighters have voted overwhelmingly for the FBU to organise industrial action in defence of pensions while 12 fire stations are threatened with closure in London. Even members of the Bakers Union are on strike at Hovis in Wigan against zero-hours contracts.
The call for the demonstration came from the 4,000 strong People’s Assembly in June. It has since been taken up by all the major unions and campaigns. The TUC itself is organising the demonstration. Three special trains from London and scores of coaches around the country will converge on Manchester. Over 50,000 are expected to protest on the day, and all of us need to be part of the fightback.
We, the participants of the 30th Revolutionary Youth International Camp of the Fourth International, are aware of the huge political repressions of militants who took part in the democratic protests in Russia. We are well-informed about almost 30 innocent people who are subject of political trial after the participation in the clash with police provoked by Russian government.
Now they are kept in inhuman conditions, many of them need medical aid, one of them has become almost totally blind. Some of them are left-wing or liberal political militants, some of them are just ordinary people for whom it was the first experience of participation in the political rally. The leaders of the protests (liberal leader Aleksey Navalny and left-wing leader Sergey Udaltsov) are under the trial as well.
We are convinced that responsibility for this clash lies not with so-called “leaders of protests”, but with the Russian government and police. It is obvious for us that Russian government did not only provoke this clash, but it has built non-democratic system government, carried out radical predatory reforms of the social sphere, and deliberately prevented Russian citizens from civil engagement during last 20 years. We are outraged by the fact that the Russian government stole the sight of the left-wing militant Vladimir Akimenkov, that it jails real fighters against fascism like Aleksey Gaskarov, who was the most important figure in organization of the anti-fascist movement since 90s and young anti-fascist militant Stepan Zimin, that it prevents 19-years old Aleksandra Duhanina from legal right to education. We are filled with indignation at the fact that Russian government breaks life of many young people who now are involuntary responsible for the misdeeds of the ruling class.
We are sure that Putin’s regime is not solving its problems, but bringing closer the day of the huge mass revolt jailing the best of Russian citizens. We will keep vigilant watch over the current Russian political developments, support our Russian comrades, and take part in the international actions of protests and solidarity.
Participants of the 30th Revolutionary Youth International Camp of the Fourth International From Argentina Belgium Brazil Britain Canada Denmark France Germany Greece Ireland Italy Mauritius Mexico the Netherlands Philippins Poland Portugal Russia Serbia Spanish state Tunisia Turkey USA
A debate has begun inside Left Unity – the project to set up a new party of the left in Britain – about what kind of party it should become. Here Tom Walker argues the case for the Left Party Platform
In only a few months, more than 9,000 people have signed up to an appeal by film director Ken Loach to set up a new party, and 90 local groups have been established in towns and cities across the country. But Loach – wanting, rightly, to be more a figurehead than a “leader” – did not put forward an elaborate political statement for people to sign up to, simply an appeal to discuss a new party and what it could look like. And that’s where we are today.
Left Unity, through its nascent democratic structures, has agreed to hold a founding conference of this new party in November. It will be open to all who sign up as founding members of the party. And it will vote on statements of the fundamental principles the party should stand for.
In the past weeks, two “platforms” – that is, cross-branch collectives of Left Unity members – have formed to put forward different founding statements: the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform. I have signed up to the Left Party Platform and the more elaborate background document that supports it. In this article I intend to explain why.
Two approaches to Left Unity
The debate between the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform is, for me, a welcome one. I understand there is some nervousness out there about the idea of having platforms at all, or that it will cause the debate to become “polarised”. But I believe there are two fundamentally different visions of a new party of the left in play, and it is better to pick one now than to fudge the issue.
The Left Party Platform stands, I believe, for the kind of project that thousands signed up to when they signed up to Left Unity: a party that can include everyone to the left of Labour. It is a clear left statement, but without being overly dogmatic or prescriptive.
I do not claim to agree with every dot and comma, but it is a platform that I am happy with as a basis. (There is still a chance to move minor amendments in November in any case.) I believe it would give Left Unity tremendous potential to grow and start to make inroads towards becoming a mass party. Already Left Unity’s meetings in many towns are bigger than any other left group’s, and it’s only just getting going. The space to the left of Labour is enormous – and as Labour moves further to the right, it gets bigger every day. In this moment of crisis and the rise of UKIP, even a moderately successful left party could pull the whole debate in society back towards the left, and win real defensive victories over the welfare state.
The Socialist Platform, by contrast, takes the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism as its starting point. It is a far narrower statement – just about acceptable to a few different kinds of socialist, but distinctly unappealing to most people on the wider left. It is a recipe, I think, for narrowing the party to those who are already convinced socialists, plus a few more who we might be able to persuade as we went along. Ultimately it would limit Left Unity’s horizons to uniting the existing organised left, becoming perhaps a slightly better version ofTUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).
Shouldn’t we argue for the “most radical” platform?
As a consequence of the way the argument has been set up, some people I wouldn’t have expected are signing up to the Socialist Platform, essentially on the basis of “we’re socialists, so we should sign up to the socialist one”. It sounds obvious – but I think it’s a fundamental mistake.
Remember, we’re not discussing platforms to organise within Left Unity in the longer term, to attempt to win people round to their way of thinking inside an established party. We’re not yet talking about cohering the revolutionary minority inside a broader organisation. The platforms are there to argue for different founding statements; that is, different kinds of party to begin with. The debate is about the fundamental principles and aims that the party should stand for – and, most significantly, about who should and shouldn’t be a member.
So the question to ask when reading different platforms isn’t “do I, personally, agree with this?” (If you’re reading this, you’re probably some kind of socialist, so of course you’re likely to have a higher level of agreement with a “more socialist” platform.) The question to ask yourself, instead, is “should agreement with this statement be a condition of membership of Left Unity?”
The the Left Party Platform tries to set out only the fundamentals – and this is part of the reason why it has been criticised in some quarters as “bland” or “anodyne”. We’re told that, horror of horrors, it doesn’t set out a clear roadmap for the transition from capitalism to socialism. We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes – exactly! That’s the point! It is explicitly inclusive of socialism and explicitly opposed to capitalism, but it is not a blunt instrument. It says:
“Many agree that we need a new left party which will present an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. Its politics and policies will stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism and fascism. Its immediate tasks will be to oppose austerity and the scapegoating which accompanies it, defend the welfare state and those worst affected by the onslaught, fight to restore workers’ rights and advance alternative social and economic policies, redistributing wealth to the working class.”
(Note the helpful distinction there between ideology and the “immediate tasks” of defending the welfare state, which we’ll return to in a moment.)
If we want a “broad party” – that is, a party that be inclusive of people who hold the wide array of different ideologies and traditions that make up the left – we need a statement that doesn’t demand agreement with a long list of specifics, but sets out the basics of the political situation and a few fundamental political principles that we believe are essential. If it’s not essential, it doesn’t belong there. Otherwise we are simply excluding people from the party before we’ve even had the debate with them.
We aren’t going to win anyone to socialism by demanding they sign up to it as a condition of Left Unity membership. Better, surely, to pass a broad founding statement and then, after November, be a strong socialist current within a party much wider than ourselves.
Problems with the Socialist Platform
First and foremost, the problem with the Socialist Platform is that it reads like a “where we stand” statement for a revolutionary organisation. The formulations scream “Trotskyist” – yet at the same time, if we want to be purist about it, fall short of actually calling for revolution, leaving a collection of statements that we want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with socialism but ignoring the question of agency. Presumably socialism comes about when the party gets big enough? It’s the programme of a quite inadequate revolutionary socialist organisation, in the Socialist Party/Militant mould. (I don’t think Left Unity should aim to be the new revolutionary party – I’m just noting that if I were one of those who thought it should, the Socialist Platform doesn’t achieve that either.)
Let’s use the key test: should agreement with all these phrases be a condition of membership of Left Unity? Should you have to sign up not only to end capitalism but to replace it with this simultaneously overly specific (in ends) and very vague (in means) vision of “socialism”, just in order to be a member? Should you have to be absolutely sure that no socialist country has ever existed – you can’t even be a bit soft on Cuba or Venezuela – just to join? Should you have to sign up to replace the European Union with “a voluntary European federation of socialist societies”, which is anyway really just a get-out clause from an argument about our attitude to the EU?
Meanwhile more important issues are left unaddressed. Feminism goes unmentioned.
The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the “European Left Party” tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche. The Socialist Platform does not – and the accompanying document prefers to point to their problems (and of course they have problems) than to (critically) outline the inspiration they provide that successful parties to the left of traditional social democracy are possible.
At the time of writing, the supporting document for the Socialist Platform has been signed by seven of the people who have signed the statement itself, so it does not necessarily represent the views of all. However, I think it is worth engaging with briefly, as it makes more explicit the approach that lies behind the platform.
Firstly, loath as I am to use the term “ultra-left”, I think that is an accurate summation of this attitude to the welfare state: “No return to 1945… That alternative is not a return to the welfare state of the 1945 Labour government but an advance to a completely new form of society.” For a party in large part inspired by Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45, about the construction of the welfare state and what it meant to ordinary people, these formulations would be odd to say the least. Forget the NHS, forget council housing, forget decent benefits, forget free education – that is, apparently, “managing capitalism, not getting rid of it”. Calling for renationalisations is slammed as a call for a “mixed economy”! After all, “[t]he profit system will remain, the nationalised industries will service big business” and it isn’t a call for “abolition of private ownership of the means of production more generally”. Don’t renationalise the railways comrades – abolish the private ownership of the means of production more generally!
There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.
But let’s leave that for now to look at the wider issues. This passage is intended to answer arguments such as mine when it comes to “socialism”:
“We do not believe that those who want to fight against austerity will be put off from joining a socialist party that openly and patiently argues its case. Who are the people who it is feared will walk away? Those who we campaign alongside in the anti-cuts campaigns, the anti-bedroom tax protests, opposition to imperialist wars and against racism are unlikely to be repelled by our arguments. We will say, ‘We want to fight here and now to [stop the privatisation of the NHS] [oppose the bedroom tax][oppose police brutality] but we also want to fight for a society in which we no longer have to get up each morning to fight these fights. We want a society in which hospitals don’t get closed and in which there is no police racism. It’s called socialism. But to get it we have to build a party that will campaign for it. You should join it.’ How will this put people off?”
I submit that this is exactly the kind of patronising of working class people that I have argued elsewhere the left needs to get away from. “It’s called socialism.” Oh, is it really? Tell me more, I’ve never heard of that. Perhaps you have a newspaper I could purchase?
The reality of the left – and the working class as a whole – is that it isn’t full of naïve activists just waiting to be brought the “good news” about socialism. People are not blank canvasses for our ideology. They have their own traditions and their own outlooks, arrived at through a lifetime of picking up a little here, a little there, and coming to a label they feel comfortable with (or, sometimes, rejecting labels altogether).
The whole spectrum of the left
A broad left party needs to encompass not only socialists, but feminists, greens/environmentalists, anarchists (and people who aren’t particularly anarchist in their practice but say they are anarchists), communists, syndicalists, autonomists, alongside people who might call themselves “mutualists”, or “co-operators”, or supporters of “parecon”, or just “radical”, or “libertarian left”, or any number of other more unusual self-descriptions – situationism, anyone? Not to mention combinations, like “eco-feminist” or “anarcho-communist”, and people who say things like “well, I don’t label myself” or “I just want to defend the welfare state”. And yes, the dreaded “left reformists” should also be included (though, of course, almost no one uses that term to refer to themselves). I’m sure I’ve missed plenty. These are the people who I “fear will walk away”. We need to try to weave together the many, many threads of left tradition into a common party.
The Socialist Platform supporting document answers this argument in this way:
“Another argument is that the supporters of this platform want a ‘narrow’ party, whereas they want a ‘broad’ party. We want a mass working-class party, which will include all who want to support the party’s aims. There is nothing to be gained from being in a narrow or small party. We set our sights on transforming society. We believe that can only be achieved by the majority of the working class acting in their own interests to get rid of capitalism and begin afresh. To reach that stage will require a mass party of millions of activist persuaders, millions of people who will argue for socialism.”
In other words they are for a “broad” party … of people who already agree with them. A “mass party” of millions who are going to appear from nowhere and embrace socialism, because socialism is just that great. The “activist persuaders” line is essentially a propagandist view, of the sort that has done the socialist left no favours for the last century or more.
My argument here annoys those who believe that parties are built through top-down “clarity” – first you come up with a clear programme (or set of politics), then you go out and build the party. But every attempt to build a mass party in this way has failed. Real parties are far messier creatures, containing a whole world of ideas that people bring with them into the party.
Of course plenty will arrive with no set ideology, or with ideas that are not very strongly held. A strong socialist presence will draw people closer to socialist ideas. Common struggle, open debate, genuine participation – all these things will draw people closer to us. But what will surely “put people off” is if we just insist from day one that socialism is the only “correct” left politics – it’s been proven by history, you know! – and insist that if they’re “put off” by it then they must be some kind of right winger.
One final point: Is this about “hiding” our socialism and voting for bad positions, in the style of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect? No – and I find this the most tedious accusation of all. The Left Party Platform is full of left principles, and certainly does not advocate the abandonment of any of them.
Supporting it is, simply, about being openly socialist, but not demanding that everyone else should be. It is about being the kind of socialist who can co-exist in a party with a wide spectrum of the left. If we’re going to demand that people agree with us before they can even join, then what is the point of having a new party at all? This is a crucial moment for Left Unity – and I believe the Left Party Platform offers the best way forward.
Alan Thornett reviews John Lister’s Health Policy Reform – Global Health versus private profit published by Libri Publications at £22.00 June 2013.
John Lister’s new book is an impressively researched 346-page book with 64 pages of bibliography. It is a comprehensive update of his first book on this subject published by Middlesex University Press in 2005 – Health Policy Reform – driving the wrong way?
Like its predecessor, it is a tour de force on the state of health care worldwide in the age of economic crisis and the neoliberal offensive. It is a unique combination of global analysis and comparison and campaigning handbook that contains a mass of information that you will not find elsewhere.
If you want know about the impact of the economic crisis and globalisation on health care services worldwide; if you want to know how this has played out across the globe from the USA and Canada to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America this is the place to look. If you want to know about the World Health Organisation or the pernicious role of global financial institutions: the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, and the European Central Bank this is where you can get it. If you want to know about the parasitic role and the impact of the pharmaceutical corporations this is the book you need.
John Lister presents all this in the framework of a working class/Marxist analysis of the capitalist system and the way it functions. In the section entitled Health care as a special type of commodity (page 26) he says the following :
“Capitalism is a system driven by the accumulation of capital, through the production and exchange of commodities. Commodities, as Marx analysed in Capital, embody two contradictory values: their use value, without which they would not be saleable in the market place; and their exchange value, defined by the hours of necessary labour time for their production (Marx 1870)…
“Health care shares with other commodities the combination of ‘use value’ (in this case additional family life, which for the patent remains the key factor). But since it is the product of human labour, embodying necessary hours of work (and in many cases access to modern, capital intensive ‘means of production’) it also embodies potential ‘exchange value’.”
He goes on to explain that health care is one of the worlds biggest and most profitable industries and its commodification potentially affects everyone on the planet at some time in their lives. Policy decisions affecting health care systems affect not only service users but the jobs, pay and working conditions of the staff employed in the industry and the vast numbers of often low paid workers providing the support services.
The book sets out the historical context of both the development of health services and the neoliberal backlash against them in Europe in particular. It analyses the development of health care in Britain from the launch of the NHS and the post war settlement to a myriad of ‘reforms’ and attacks on the NHS through to the assault on the NHS which is taking place today.
“One of the key historic periods of choice came in 1945, when Europe’s weakened and bankrupt ruling classes faced a new post-war political reality. They had to devise a new approach that could safeguard stability and rebuild a system that had been shattered and destabilised by war. The emergence of Keynesian economics and a ‘welfarist’ consensus in much of Europe reflected a new balance of class forces, in which capitalist classes found themselves having to deal with the expectations and demands of a more militant working class (reflected also in the strengthening of social-democratic and communist parties) which they were poorly placed to confront. Only the USA was largely unaffected by the new situation, its economy having been relatively untroubled by the war and its lack of even a social-democratic party of the working class helping to ensure that the post-war wave of trade union militancy remained largely confined to economic rather than political objectives. As a result, the divergences between the US and European politics continued to widen.”
Given John Lister’s many years as a leading health campaigner, you would expect a robust defense of the NHS and the principle upon which it was built and the book does not disappoint. It is both a champion of the principles of the NHS and a handbook for the struggle in Britain today to sustain healthcare free at the point of use in the face of the attacks by the Tory-led government.
To this end the book contains a comprehensive overview of the many attacks which have been launched against the NHS by successive British governments in the guise of ‘reforms’, not least the privatisation and other measures brought in by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the shape of PFI/PPP.
When it comes to alternatives, John Lister starts with socialist principles and the directly political problems of the fightback. With the collapse to the right of social democracy, he argues, it is the lack of an organised alternative to its left which hampers the fight back. He points to some welcome exceptions to this particularly in Greece with the rise of Syriza, which came very close to winning the last election on a platform of rejecting austerity and the restoration of health and other key public services. He also points to the Left Block in Portugal and the Red Green Alliance in Denmark.
He is critical of the radical left for its lack of prioritisation of the defence of heath care and points to the centrality of health care at both the industrial and political level and its potential to be at the centre of a wider fight back against austerity.
More specifically in terms of alternatives, he argues that public ownership and democratic planning not markets are the answer to effective healthcareand that the resources for this can be found given the political will to do so. He calls for the elimination of elitist opt outs for the wealthy. For the raising of a tax levy on the big financial institutions. For a Tobin Tax in international financial transactions. For steeply progressive income and corporation tax to raise the money for a decent health service. For the ending of tax evasion for the rich an for the corporations.
John Lister finishes by pointing to the centrality not only of resisting privatisation in the existing public health services but in the nationalisation of the drug companies and their research and development facilities. He puts it this way:
“But of course the biggest problem is a political one: securing governments with the commitment to pursue radical policies in the teeth of the massively powerful and well resourced lobby of the drug corporations (which in the US employ more than two lobbyists for every member of Congress). Few political parties even formally embrace the principles of nationalisation or in nay way challenge the drug companies, and few of those that do have any real intention of doing so. Even where drug companies are caught red handed in breach of the laws regulating their behaviour, they simply pay up even the biggest fine, make a ritual apology – and carry on in the same way.
Like its first edition, this much-expanded book is indispensible reading to all who want to understand the complexities of health care in order both to effectively defend what exists and to fight for something better as a part of the struggle for a socialist society.
Phil Hearse reports on the first meeting of Left Unity’s National Co-ordinating group which took place in Doncaster on Saturday June 15.
This was a highly successful in preparing the ground for the foundation of a broad left party in November. However there are some important political differences that will undoubtedly lead to animated debates running up to the conference. As you would expect there was an obvious great diversity in terms of political outlook and experience evident in the debates
There were 43 voting representatives present at the meeting, of whom 36 were from local groups and 7 of the 10 directly elected from May 11. 14 local groups sent apologies, 18 groups have not yet met the criteria to be represented ( this varies between groups in fairly substantial places eg Coventry and Oxford who are holding their first meetings this week to smaller, often rural places who have as yet only small numbers of supporters. There were 16 women amongst the voting representatives.
Given the location of the meeting, probably groups in the north of England and the Midlands were better represented than those further south (for example there was no one from the very large group in Brighton.
Here I have listed main decisions of the meeting, but not given a tedious and incomprehensible account of who proposed what and how original resolutions were amended, composited etc:
- A proposal by Dave Stocking (Workers Power) that the September conference should adopt a basic platform for the organisation was rejected as pre-empting the decisions of the national conference in November.
- The September conference/national meeting will not be a voting conference but discuss papers proposed by the national commissions. It was agreed that commissions can involve campaign activists and trade unionists who are not members of LU.
- Local groups will be able to send resolutions to the national conference. Positions with 10 or more supporters will be able to form ‘platforms’ inside the organisation: the formulation ‘tendencies, factions and platforms’ was dropped. A significant number of those present opposed the proposal for platforms.
- The national conference will focus on the following major items: a) Statement of aims b) campaigning priorities c) Participation in Elections (including Metropolitan and European elections next year) d) constitution. It seems obvious from the contributions yesterday that the issue of standing in elections is controversial and some of the contributions were quite skeptical about this.
- A proposal from the Socialist Party, following a discussion between Dave Nellist and Ken Loach, to have an early meeting about an electoral non-aggression pact was accepted, although no decisions can be made before the LU national conference. There will probably be a difficult discussion in LU about what attitude to adopt politically in the European elections, given the poisonous role this issue plays in national politics and boosting racism and chauvinism.
- A category of ‘founding member’ was adopted as the basis for voting and participation in the national conference. In essence this is open to people who support the aim of a broad left party and who pays dues on a minimum scale to indicate commitment. People who have standing orders etc to local groups can be automatically converted to the status of ‘founding member’
- A resolution from Islington re racism and Islamophobia was put on the table as pre-empting policy decisions, but obviously the spirit of the resolution, re the importance of mobilising against the fascists, racism and Islamophobia was universally agreed.
- Two resolutions concerning the prompt circulation of material to all NCG members and the posting of minutes, documents etc on the website were passed, but about these see below.
- The decision of the group of 10 directly elected members of the NCG to produce a four page broadsheet for the People’s Assembly was endorsed (see final point of this document).
The unfortunate downside of the meeting
The immensely positive and constructive day was marred by a complaint at the beginning of the meeting that the agenda to be proposed the meeting had been decided exclusively by the group of 10 directly elected members and not the NCG as a whole. Moreover group of 10 had met twice since the last meeting and taken a series of interim decisions off its own bat. This was raised in an aggressive and accusatory manner as if fundamental breaches of democracy had taken place.
In my view there was absolutely no substance in these accusations. It hardly seems credible that a committee of 45 (or more) from all round the country could have met twice…to prepare a meeting of 45 people from all round the country! As Kate Hudson pointed out, if the directly elected members of the NCG had not met to prepare the full national meeting they would have been accused of dereliction of duty. Indeed, why exactly did the last meeting decide to elect 10 members directly? It is not a minus but a plus that the 10 directly elected members of the NCG took the initiative, inter alia to prepare the very important intervention of Left Unity in the People’s Assembly. And the last national meeting explicitly gave the directly elected group of ten the task of preparing yesterday’s meeting!
Regrettably a number of people at the meeting took this stunt as good coin. The delegate from Walsall, Dave Church, made a highly emotional speech and then stormed out of the meeting. Given that there was a session on transparency in the afternoon where we had to have the whole discussion again, it was very regrettable that the day started on such a sour note, which undoubtedly left a bad taste in many comrades’ mouths. Doubtless a lot of people though “here we go again with left squabbling over nothing”.
Nick Wrack and Will McMahon who were amongst those complaining most loudly about these matters have their own political position for a narrower kind of party than that envisaged by many others participating in the project. There is no doubt they will form their own platform in preparation for the conference. This is perfectly legitimate and they have every right to do it. It would be better if they stuck to the political debate about that difference of political orientation.
The final item of the day introduced by Andrew Burgin stressed the importance of the People’s Assembly to getting the name and ideas of Left Unity known. “This is our audience” said Andrew. Up to 4000 people will be there. The Assembly starts at 9.30am and the Left Unity stall outside the conference will be distributing the broadsheet from 8.00am. We need all hands on deck.
Mass demonstrations and harsh governmental crackdowns are not new in Turkish political history writes Yunus Sözen , Antikapitalist Eylem (Anticapitalist Action). However, although the current demonstrations in Istanbul and throughout Turkey were initiated by socialists, there is no doubt that we are experiencing something strikingly different this time. This is displayed by not only the visible lack of political experience of a significant number of the demonstrators but also the sheer number and incredible resilience of the demonstrators in the face of massive and tear gas assaults by the police. What is the cause of this massive social explosion in a country where there is no sign of economic crisis, and where the government was elected in 2011 with 50% of the votes?
To better understand what is happening, let’s start with a discussion of the relationship between elections and democracy. Athenian democrats devised their democratic system without elections because they believed that elections are the oligarchic method of selecting the leaders. They believed that mechanisms that prevent the formation a political class (like the lottery and rotation systems) are the only democratic ways to select the rulers. Because, Athenian democrats believed that elections not only have an intrinsic class bias, but elections also provide the rulers autonomy from the ruled; that is, they make it possible for rulers to be able to do whatever they please. Indeed, the only reason why modern liberal representative government centred around elections is not simply an oligarchic system. It is because it is also a system that provides tools for the ruled, including methods of participation other than elections, freedoms for the opposition, and checks on the rulers. Although these tools are still severely inadequate, they do make it more challenging for the rulers to do whatever they wish and they do force rulers to respond to citizens to an extent. However, if elections start to become the only institution of a modern representative government, then elections merely become a tool for authoritarian rule by bolstering the executive branch with popular approval.
The demonstrations centred around the resistance in Istanbul’s Gezi park are exactly about the grievances caused by the dictatorship of an executive branch that is reinforced by electoral approval. Specifically, the Gezi park resistance is one those instances where both the class character of the state and the oligarchic nature of electoral legitimisation became blatantly obvious. First, it signifies the class character of the state in a way that will not escape even the most crude Marxist analysis. Gezi is a public park at the political and social epicentre of the city, Taksim, and the government decided to replace the park with a shopping mall. When activists started to resist the plans turn the park into a shopping centre the government sent in its police. To put it even more bluntly, the state blindly used its instruments of violence to serve the interests of capital, and to convert a collective good into private property.
Unprecedented accumulation of power
Gezi also demonstrates the oligarchic character of a political regime based solely on electoral authorization. In the 2011 elections, nobody voted for to convert the public park in Taksim into a mall or any of the other government infringements of citizens’ rights. Yet the government had the legal right to rule as it pleases. However, despite their electoral mandate, this type of unilateral action may not have happened in a better functioning representative system which provides its citizens with instruments of participation and opposition other than elections. Even though its democratic content is limited, in a liberal representative government citizens would have some access to policy making, there would be a level of transparency and free public debate, and there would be legal scrutiny over the issue. In Turkey on the other hand, no such limits are in place given the Justice and Development Party (referred to as the AKP or Ampül Parti) unprecedented accumulation of power since 2007.
The AKP has now not only eliminated the historical challenge from the army, but it has also taken control of the high courts, and then slowly but surely, using its popularity, eradicated all oppositional freedoms. Concretely speaking, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s policy could not be confronted by the non-existing oppositional media, and it could not be challenged by the judiciary that is now under the control of the executive, i.e. the ruling party. Therefore, when Erdogan wanted to turn a public space into a right-wing conservative space, where customers buy goods. There were no other way to stop him except by the force of numbers.
However, the hundreds of thousands of people out protesting are not resisting the police and subjecting themselves to the massive use of tear gas and brute force just because of the injustice at Gezi park, or just because of the fact that Erdogan is an authoritarian leader. These protests happened because in addition to Erdogan’s on-going attacks on oppositional groups (secularists, Alewites, Kurds, socialists and others), including purging them from positions of power, and criminalising and imprisoning them en masse for various reasons, he deepened to an unprecedented extent his neoliberal and extremely conservative exclusionary social policies. To name a few of the most recent ones, last year, without much debate, the whole education system was reconfigured to better serve not only the needs of capital but also in Erdogan’s words, ‘to raise a more religious generation’. Last month, in a country where per capita alcohol consumption is by far the lowest among OECD countries, strict alcohol consumption restrictions passed, which were defended by Erdogan as follows: ‘why is it defensible for you to accept a law passed by two drunkards [according to many signifying Ataturk and Inonu], but the law that is the imperative of religion becomes something that you need to deny…if you want to drink, buy your drink and go drink it in your own home’. Last week, the AKP enlarged its assault on women rights by making the morning after pill a prescription drug, and a couple of days ago Erdogan later approved of an announcement made in Ankara metro warning against kissing in public. Many of these regulations would be very difficult to implement if previously existing checks were still place. For example, the constitutional court might strike a few of the legal changes, or the council of the state would limit or remove some of the others. Considering the lack of avenues for voice and the lack of obstacles against Erdogan’s power, these and many other similar policies, combined with his symbolically exclusionary and suffocating speeches, have apparently made a great many non-supporters feel not only completely powerless and frustrated, but also very angry.
Taking control of the city
This anger has now become embodied in massive demonstrations, where hundreds of thousands of people are taking back the autonomy that the government enjoys. In short, if the reason for the rebellion is the sense of powerlessness, lack of control over their own lives, the immediate result is perhaps the sense of power large sectors of the population are enjoying for the first time. For now, they have taken control of their city and of their lives. As a result, we are now part of a truly democratic moment. This is an experience that goes way beyond the ‘democratic rights’ enjoyed within liberal representative democracies, which at its best is a democracy tamed for the requirements of capitalism and the modern state. Therefore, in a counter-intuitive way, we probably owe this democratic explosion to the lack of democratic checks on the power of the electorally authorized executive. For Erdogan, on the other hand, before our very eyes we are witnessing the transformation of his image from a leader who is powerful, popular, and if a little impulsive, still reflective of the values of the ‘Turkish nation’, into a tyrant who is so greedy and drunk with power that although he has the votes, he cannot manage the country effectively anymore. He is indeed trapped in a dictatorial dilemma: if he caves into the current demands, he will lose the perception that he is all that powerful; if he does not cave in at all, he will have to rely on coercive power to the degree that he will turn into a cruel tyrant. So far he has taken the second route, still belittling and criminalizing the demonstrators, hoping that the next elections in less than a year will result in a way to dissipate the democratic euphoria. However, although this is one of those instances where the statement that ‘politics is open-ended’ is indeed the reality, it appears that sustained mobilization is the only course of action that will help satisfy both democratic and socialist goals.
Bob Dylan remarks somewhere that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. He forgot to add: you might need one to tell you about the tragedy of extreme weather events. Not, perhaps, those committed by the erstwhile US urban guerrilla movement, inspired by Dylan’s aphorism, but definitely those due to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
As a person who in his prime was given to vivid symbolism, perhaps Dylan should now write a song about the crossing on May 9th 2013 of the 400ppm threshold in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. He might also revisit his anti-capitalist past and provide a critique of current efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But let’s not wait for that….
Studies have now confirmed what has been predicted all along: that climate change is leading to more – and more intense – extreme weather events. One of these studies states that the land area of the world now affected by extreme hot summer anomalies in any one year, has increased from 1% to 10% in the space of 30 years. It states confidently that the heat waves in France, Texas and Moscow in 2003, 2010 and 2011 respectively, all of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, “almost certainly would not have occurred in the absence of global warming”.
New Scientist in mid-January summarised what this has meant for people, animals and plants recently in different parts of the world. In Australia, temperature records are being “annihilated”:` wild fires in January devastated large areas of New South Wales and highly ecologically-sensitive Tasmania. In 2009, 173 people were killed in bush fires around Melbourne, Victoria. Current housing development doesn’t take fire risk into account. As one scientist put it “[planners] are setting us up for the catastrophes of the future”.
In NE Brazil, the year-long drought – the worst in 50 years – has killed cattle, damaged corn and cotton crops and wiped out 30% of the region’s sugar cane (in part, used for biofuel). Hydropower dams are at 32% of capacity, threatening electricity shortages. Thousands of subsistence farmers have lost their livelihood, while agrarian reform under the PT government of Dilma Rousseff has “been abandoned”, according to the co-ordinator of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).
Meanwhile, in the United States, 60% of the land area has been affected by drought and last year 25% of the maize (corn) crop was lost (12% of the world’s total) in the hottest year for the sub-continent on record. This will impact on food prices for everyone. In January, the Department of Agriculture declared 20% of agricultural land a “natural” disaster area, although it really is a “capitalist” disaster. During and after Hurricane Sandy, some US politicians finally suggested that climate change might be a problem.
They now face a major choice for the future of New York: either abandon large sections of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and even sections of lower Manhattan, or build huge, ecologically-damaging barriers across the New York-New Jersey Harbor Gateway and the East River. It is quite likely that neither option will have even been decided by the time the next “Sandy” hits. Of course, the problems the people of New York face are as nothing compared to those in cities in emerging economies, such as Dhaka, Bangkok, Shanghai or Rio, which have fewer resources for defences.
Finally, four years of intense waves of cold weather have covered large parts of Asia, extending even to snowstorms and floods in the Middle East. 200 people have been killed by the cold in northern India. This weather pattern is thought to be caused by the rapid warming of the Arctic, including a feedback mechanism, driven by the melting of the sea ice. This has weakened wind currents over Asia and allowed Arctic air to spill over onto the continental mass.
Weather vs. Climate
A climate change denier might argue “that’s just weather: the climate trends are different, and even the Met Office said on 24th December (2012) that the world has cooled since 1997-8 and will remain at current temperatures, about 0.43oC above the long-term average, until 2017”. This is precisely what the Mail Online reports: “Global Warming stopped 16 years ago …. So who are the deniers now?”
More recently, some climate scientists themselves have started to question whether their estimates of climate forcing by carbon dioxide are correct. Climate forcing is the average world temperature rise that would result from a doubling of CO2 concentrations and is in the range 2-4.5oC. That carbon dioxide concentration (but not the commensurate temperature rise – see below) is expected to be reached by about mid-century, on current trends.
The argument is that, in the last 15 years or so, the rate of global warming has increased more slowly than previously (not, as the deniers contend, that the world has cooled). A report on the BBC’s Today Programme on 17th May gave a flavour of the debate, but failed properly to confront the scientific issues – namely the difference between heat and temperature, a question that should be familiar to anyone who has done a GCSE science course. (Basically, a swimming pool at 30oC contains an awful lot more heat energy than a spark at 3000oC).
A small oscillation in the rate of global warming does not contradict the basic findings from the paleoclimate record. Indeed, in the very week that this debate started up again, a study was published showing, based on records from the sediment in a Siberian lake, that the last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as at present, 3 million years ago, the average temperatures in Siberia were 8oC higher than today.
Previous warming episodes have come about over periods of thousands of years, while the current one is much faster. It would be even more rapid, if the sea did not act as a sink: it is unable to reach the temperature that corresponds to current carbon dioxide levels before those levels rise again. This lag means current temperatures are cooler than they would be if the sea was not there, but that we are already locked in to higher levels of temperature rises, like those of 3 million years ago, unless carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are actually brought down. This is the rationale for the 350.org campaign.
Deniers show their cynicism
After the Daily Mail’s outburst in January, comments of a similar calibre flooded the deniers’ media outlets and blogs, actions of deeply cynical dishonesty, designed purely for defence of the fossil fuel industry. In fact, as Fred Pearce has pointed out , along with others, the Met Office’s findings are qualified by numerous caveats:
- 1998 was the hottest year on record and surface air temperatures can be expected to reach similar levels twice in the next five years
- The Met Office work is an exercise, designed to test the robustness of several new models that now take account of ocean currents, amongst other things
- In the medium term, climate is affected by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which affect the amount of heat absorbed by the oceans, with the effects described above
- The factor that is fundamentally affected by atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is the balance between the energy absorbed by the planet and that re-radiated out into space. If that energy is used to heat a previously unexposed colder ocean surface, or to melt ice, rather than to further heat up the atmosphere, it hasn’t “disappeared”: there is still a major issue, including sea level rises and extreme weather. The rise in temperature will hit us later.
- If the Met Office forecasts prove to be correct, as medium term effects, they are just superimposed on the long-term atmospheric warming trend.
Pearce suggests that when these oscillations enter a new phase, warming could accelerate even further, as oceans give up to the atmosphere heat accumulated in the current phase. “Scary”, is his summary of the situation.
This also is the conclusion that can be drawn from a recent study in Nature Climate Change, which modelled what would happen even if it was possible to cut world carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. This is a cut of 5% a year from 2016 (the authors give the international capitalist class and their political lackeys 3 years to read their paper and start to implement cuts). There is currently a rise in emissions of 2.6% a year.
The 80% cut, the authors argue, would limit the average world atmospheric temperature rise to 2oC by 2100, still viewed as disastrous by some scientists, but way below the likely rise of 4-6oC. They conclude that 20-65% of the adverse effects (heat waves, floods, crop failures etc.) predicted under “business as usual” could be avoided if the cuts are implemented. Or, to put it another way, 35-80% of these effects would not be avoided. Furthermore, no mitigation of climate change and its consequences is predicted prior to 2050, even if these large cuts in GHG emissions take place.
What are the Capitalists Doing?
How well is the capitalist system faring in its attempt to implement such cuts? A cut of 80% in emissions by 2050 is, after all, the figure on the European Commission’s “road map”, whatever that means. The current rate of emissions rise has already been mentioned. We can look at some fossil fuel projects being implemented or planned. In the Athabasca tar sands, oil production is to nearly triple by 2020. Obama is about to decide whether to give the go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline, connecting these tar sands to Texas refineries. There already is one going to Illinois and Oklahoma.
US coal exports (mainly to China) have more than doubled in 3 years and there are plans to increase them further – by building ports in Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia linked to railways from the western fields. China’s annual coal consumption, already nearly half world consumption, is forecast to grow from the current 3.52bn to 5.2bn tonnes by 2020: another 2bn is consumed in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
At the same time, there is the dash to use the opportunity of the melting of Arctic sea ice to open up the region for oil and gas exploitation, while Japan has recently developed the technology to recover methane clathrates from the sea bed. These clathrates, or hydrates, are a crystalline compound of methane and water, unstable except at high pressure, or well below 0oc. The Japanese extraction method involves reducing the pressure to release the gas from the compound. This must involve the risk of inadvertent release to the atmosphere of large quantities of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Fracking, for gas and oil, is having a major impact. Shale gas, trapped in the cracks and pores in rocks, rather than in large reservoirs, is extracted by drilling deep wells that turn horizontal, then opening up the fissures using high-pressure water. The technology has many damaging environmental consequences: possible pollution of aquifers; air and noise pollution at ground level; very high well-head density (roads and pipelines). Large amounts of water required (which returns to the well-head polluted by the chemical additives and often by the underground minerals and volatile organic compounds. The technology is highly dependent on road transport, the new roads destroying ecosystems and leading to even greater carbon emissions.
Largely using this technology, the US is set overtake Russia as the main gas producer in 2015, and to exceed Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 2017. Gas prices in the USA have plummeted, while the “fracking rush” has only just got underway. These developments could have significant world-wide political consequences.
There are slated to be up to 170,000 (see 1.06:48) fracking wells in Pennsylvania alone, drilled over a long period of time: one every 80 acres over 70% of the accessible land. These will add to the well over 300,000 existing and exhausted oil and conventional natural gas wells in the state. Already, there are signs that these old workings are being damaged by fracking, causing methane leaks and even explosions. Of course, this is partly because the old wells were never properly sealed.
Fracking all over the place
Other countries, such as Britain, Poland and South Africa are trying to introduce gas fracking, in the face of considerable popular opposition. The Transnational Institute has surveyed moves towards fracking and counts four countries that have started and 18 that are interested, including the major imperialist powers, except France, and all the BRIC countries. In France, fracking was banned in July 2011, following a large national mass movement, based on opposition in areas where sites had been earmarked for exploration. A movement against fracking is developing in Algeria, where fossil fuel companies Shell, Eni and Talisman have interests – particularly because of the tax breaks the government is offering.
China is meant to have the largest on-shore shale gas reserves and is aiming to use the resource for 6% of its energy needs by 2020. Again, according to TNI, Chinese companies have linked up with the likes of Shell, BP, Exxon, Chevron and Total to extract the gas. There is no effective environmental protection and the water demands, often in areas of shortage, will add to all the other harmful effects on local ecosystems and people.
The TNI links the interest in fracking to land-grabbing by multinationals, particularly important, given the large land area “per unit gas yield” the technology requires.
In Britain, after a 1 ½ year delay due to some minor earthquakes near Blackpool, resulting from exploratory drilling, the government in November 2012 gave the go-ahead for fracking test wells. Shale (but not necessarily recoverable gas) is present over 60% of the land mass of England and drilling licences have already been granted (or old conventional gas and oil ones revived) in Lancashire, the South-East and South Wales.
One other technology for which permits have been given in the UK is underground coal gasification (UGC). Interestingly, Lenin wrote approvingly about this technology, describing the benefits that could be gained from it under a socialist system, and its earliest large-scale application was in the USSR in the 1930’s.
Another technology, more closely related to fracking, is Coal Bed Methane (CBM). Planning applications have been sought for this process in the Falkirk/Stirling area and it is likely that this site will be the first to use one of these technologies on a large scale.
The drawbacks described below for fracking largely apply to UGC and CBM as well.
Some environmentalists are starting to claim that fracking will have the benefit of reducing the dependence on coal for generating electricity and thereby carbon dioxide emissions. There are three reasons why fracking is not the answer to this problem. One is the issue of methane leaks. The fragility of old workings has already been mentioned, and there are videos on the internet of people showing flames in their methane-contaminated tap water. Probably more serious are long-term leaks from the new wells, resulting from careless work or poor quality materials. The wells are lined with concrete: the Deepwater Horizon disaster was due to the failure of non-compliant concrete.
A study from Cornell University in 2011, with a follow-up in 2012, found that fracking caused up to twice as much methane leakage as conventional drilling and that, as a result, “the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”. Another report, from January 2013, has shown that some wells leak an “eye-popping” 9% of their production. Presumably, this leakage could be reduced by better practice, but who will inspect the hundreds of thousands of installations to ensure that is implemented?
The second objection is that all these new technologies are locking the system into fossil fuel dependence for (more) decades to come. This is the effect of building of ever more fossil fuel infrastructure. Capitalists who invest in expensive plant will want to use it for as long as possible, in order to maximise their revenue and profits. Every new investment reduces the prospects of a viable system of energy saving and renewable energy generation being implemented. It also diverts financial and human resources (research and skilled labour) away from these goals.
Finally, the fracking boom is likely to reduce the prices of all fossil fuels. Again, this makes it more difficult to implement fuel-saving or renewable energy strategies, especially as fossil fuels attract subsidies, open or hidden, which are not given to non-fossil fuel technologies.
A CEO of a US energy corporation summed up the capitalist attitude to fossil fuel exploitation at a recent business meeting on fracking, dismissing the concerns of an MIT professor (who also happened to be a former head of the CIA!):
“There is no question that climate change and global warming are issues, but you cannot ruin the economy to address them….We’re in these businesses and we are driven by economics. I can tell you that in my opinion all of these alternatives are not economic against natural gas.”
Conclusion – not a holiday
In 2005, one of the predecessors of Socialist Resistance pointed out that capitalism had already had fifty years’ warning that greenhouse gas emissions were subjecting the world’s people and ecosystems to a “large scale geophysical experiment”. We surveyed some of the effects of climate change that were already visible and pointed out the threats, especially to agriculture, and of the spread of tropical diseases and mentioned that a major extinction event was already under way.
Since then, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 380ppm to 400ppm and the rate of increase of emissions has also increased by about 20%. There is no indication that capitalism is structurally capable of turning this around.
Along with the continuing frantic extraction of fuels outlined above, the problem is perhaps best illustrated by a recent report, which warned of the possible collapse of the fossil fuel giants, if serious emissions curbs were implemented. The top 200 giants are worth $4tn (based, in large part, on a valuation of their claimed reserves), but have debts of $1.5tn, so a policy that stated “no, you can’t use your reserves” is untenable for the capitalist economy.
Bursting the fossil fuel bubble would have severe consequences for the capitalist system as a whole. The fossil fuel system giants cannot be allowed to collapse and nor can the pension funds that own so many of their shares. Capitalism has no way out when it comes to climate change, except possibly when it is faced with global ecological catastrophe. By then, the “cure” capitalism proposes will most likely make the current austerity programme look like a summer holiday.
What are the alternatives that socialists propose? These will be the subject of subsequent articles in the series. We will examine especially agriculture, energy resources and biodiversity, hopefully showing how, through a socialist strategy, correctly addressing these issues can secure the future of humanity and the ecosystems on which we depend.