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The R word raises its head

You could argue that ordinary people understand the immediacy of the global economic crisis of capitalism better than political activists because working people are struggling with rising prices for food and energy, mounting debts, lower wages and redundancies. The coincidence of all these facts of daily existence with a mounting political crisis in Britain adds up to an even greater test for political campaigners.

There are no obvious immediate “practical” solutions to recession plus inflation, especially when the market state and client governments like New Labour have neither the capacity nor the political will to intervene. So it’s a kind of double bind which provokes the development of ideas that link to immediate problems but raise the spectre of revolutionary change.

For example, on the energy crisis, the case for social ownership of power generating and oil corporations increases daily. This essential resource should not be left in private hands or market forces. In the interim, the state could slash prices and subsidise energy through the scrapping of Trident and foreign wars. To save energy, public transport fares could be reduced drastically and services reorganised so that people could get to and from work without using their cars. Rail and bus networks would then be taken back into public ownership.

Food prices could be frozen and steps taken towards bringing the supermarket chains into co-operative ownership, ending their profiteering at consumers’ expense. People threatened with repossession should be allowed to stay in their homes pending plans to convert everyone’s mortgage debt into something more affordable and less of a long-term burden. Speculating in commodities and currencies should be blocked and a programme of turning private sector finance into mutual, co-operatively owned enterprises launched.

The big question of questions looms: Who on earth is going to implement such a programme? New Labour? You can’t be serious. The Tories or Lib Dems? You are obviously joking. The apparent political impasse leads to the spectre already mentioned, that of a break with the capitalist present and a leap into a revolutionary future. It’s difficult to conceive of but it’s an eminently practical solution given that There is No Alternative.

The R word is being used by all sorts of people, including the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt. In his blog earlier this month, he sounded the alarm bells: “‘So, food security is back on the political agenda. Climate change is omni-present. Peak Oil is rising. The credit crunch is the new player on the block. Resource wars are looming. Rainforest destruction just won’t go away. Species loss is as bad as ever, but no one cares – for now. Water shortages are chronic. But much, much more worrying are the linkages between all these notionally ‘separate’ phenomena. The synergies, feedback loops, interdependencies.

“At long last, people are starting to make the connections – and are even beginning to link all those separate symptoms back to their root cause: today’s literally insane notion of getting richer by trashing the planet and screwing the poor.” Porritt summed it up pretty well. And then he went on: ‘Don’t hold your breath, but pretty soon you might even hear one or two of them start talking about population. And then you’ll know revolution is on the way.” And then on Newsnight last night, someone did. It was him.

As an advisor at the heart of the Brown government, Porritt is well-placed to know that collectively they just don’t get it about any of the truly catastrophic interdependent threats and crises that worry the hell out of the rest of us. And when they do, when for example a few hundred truckers try to drive slowly into town (stopped by the police), the only market-dependent, profit-enhancing “solutions” they can come up with are bound to make everything worse. Like tax breaks on oil – not for hard-pressed hauliers and farmers, but to encourage increased production in the North Sea. Climate change? Somebody else’s problem.

Porritt’s dangerous and reactionary talk about population numbers was in response to the global food crisis. But the Organisation For Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organisation (FAO) tell a different story in their joint Agricultural Outlook 2008-2017. World population growth is declining and food production is increasing. But US attempts to keep corporate profits rolling in are driving the world over the edge into mass starvation.

A broad range of different ideas and proposals to bring this most dangerous period of capitalist production to an end came from the large number of concerned people who attended last Saturday’s Beyond the Market Economy conference (the discussion is now continuing online). Many saw the need to end corporate power and establish 21st century models of social ownership. The real challenge is to create the leadership and organisation needed to bring such policies to fruition. The urgency of achieving this cannot be overstated.

Gerry Gold & Paul Feldman
Co-authors A House of Cards – from fantasy finance to global crash
30 May 2008

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