For a Green New Deal with people’s power

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By Mike Treen

January 14, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Today for the first time in half a century there is a wave of revolt sweeping the world that seems pregnant with revolutionary possibilities that may finally allow working people to help lead humanity and the planet we exist on out of the hell-hole that capitalism has created for us.

I lived through the 1960s and 70s during a similar period of challenge and change. It filled me with hope for the future of humanity. Progressive change seemed inevitable. Working people expanded their rights and living standards. Access to health care, education and welfare became expanded. Women, Maori, Gays and other oppressed peoples found their voices to challenge discrimination and seek liberation.

The institutions working people could use to empower themselves like the trade unions seemed to get stronger, active and more democratic. Parties that claimed to represent us became more progressive in their outlook. 

Internationally the ruling elites were frightened. In response, they launched a full-scale ideological, political, and social counter-revolution that swept away or corrupted many of the gains that had been made. Led by the then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, the right-wing wave swept the world.

Rogernomics and Ruthanasia

In New Zealand, we saw the imposition of Rogernomics of Ruthanasia. These policies of named after the Labour party Finance Minister Roger Douglas and National Party Finance Minister Ruth Richardson saw the imposition of so-called free-market policies and privatisation.

A deep economic recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s ensued and help reintroduce mass unemployment not seen since the 1930s. Unions were stripped of legal rights and beaten down. Workers’ living standards were gutted. Real wages were decreased. Most of us lost penal rates for weekend work and overtime. Full-time work got replaced with zero-hour contracts for many. Benefit values were slashed. Ever-increasing debt became a tool for further exploitation.

There was tremendous disorientation because the process was begun by “our” party – the Labour Party in the 1980s, and many of our union leaders told us we couldn’t resist. Union membership collapsed in the private sector from 50% to just 10% and hasn’t recovered yet.

Most working people lost confidence in their existing structures. Strike action declined from around 150,000 days a year in the 1970s and 80s to almost non-existence by the mid-1990s.

This is changing significantly today with a major upsurge in strike action over the last couple of years. It seems apparent that today’s generation does not carry the weight of past defeats on their shoulders and there is a renewed confidence to simply say “enough is enough” and have a go at changing the world they are living in.

Nurses and teachers waged strikes of a breadth and depth not seen in decades. Nurses discovered their union was a bit rusty and have tried to bring about the changes that are needed to make it more effective in future battles.

First Union has conducted successful  Living Wage campaigns across a range of major retail chains and lifted workers’ wages significantly.

Unite Union lead a fight against zero hour contracts in 2015 and they were outlawed in a unanimous vote in parliament. We are preparing a living wage for fast food workers campaign in 2020.

As well, Unite has helped successfully lead a fight to get several billion dollars in holiday pay stolen from workers over the last decade or so paid back.

Capitalist crisis of overproduction

Internationally, the free-market fundamentalism that was supposed to liberate capitalism from the shackles of the state has simply ended in another massive capitalist crisis of overproduction in 2008-9. That crisis required a bailout of the elites and their financial and productive system to the value trillions of dollars. Money was printed and handed out to the class of parasites who created the problem. That handout is now being paid for by working people. Austerity and economic stagnation grips most of the advanced capitalist world.

Inequality has since simply deepened. The adage that “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer” has never been truer. Inequality within and between nations has been driven up to levels not seen before. Today, a few billionaires control as much wealth as half the rest of the world’s population.

The wealthiest nations also sought to reimpose imperialist dominance over the so-called Third World – nations in the colonial and semi-colonial world – especially if they were sitting on any reserves of oil – through war if necessary.

Elites in the Third World who collaborated with their imperial masters were promoted against those who sought national independence or third world unity. Systems of divide and rule remained the empire’s tool of choice.

International fightback

The international fightback we are seeing today is broader and deeper than anything we have seen since the 1960s. It completely rejects the existing order of economic stagnation, mass poverty, homelessness, debt bondage and inequality. 

Everywhere it is being led by this new generation. It is a genuine youth rebellion. Many don’t seem to have a centralised organisational structure. Most are not led by traditional left parties. Indigenous voices and women are often in the lead of these protests.

Let’s look at a few of these happening right now:

In Iraq, tens of thousands of young people have been demanding the end to the sectarian system of governance imposed by the United States after the Iraq war. 

In Lebanon, the sectarian systems imposed by French colonial rule are also under attack.

In Sudan, a mass protests erupted on December 19 last year and have continued throughout 2019. They brought down a decrepit dictator in April and are still trying to impose a new representative government.

In Algeria protests dubbed “Revolution of Smiles” began in February and have continued through to today following fraudulent new elections called by the regime.

Chile has seen almost continuous mass mobilisations and general strikes since high school students rebelled against increased fares in its subway system on October 18.

In Ecuador, a series of protests since October 1 against IMF imposed austerity measures including fuel price hikes has led the government to move its offices from the capital Quito.

Colombia has witnessed the revival of mass protests and general strikes this year as the country emerges from decades of authoritarian rule by the US-supported right-wing military and political elites and their drug cartel friends. New Forms of people’s power are being discovered

Puerto Rico experienced mass protests and a general strike that forced the Governors resignation.

Haiti has seen continuous protests for the past year to oust their corrupt and authoritarian regime imposed by the US.

Mass student protests have begun in Indonesia against corruption and reactionary laws in the new penal code – including outlawing sex outside marriage.

Hong Kong has seen a sustained wave of protests that led to supporters of more democracy for the Chinese city winning most seats on the elected assembly. What has been interesting has also been the use of social media as a tool for organising – including mass voting on proposals for the movement.

The last few weeks have seen new waves of protests in Guinea, Peru, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Catalonia

In many countries, these are protests against “the system”. It doesn’t necessarily matter if there is an elected government or not. Chile, Iraq, Lebanon are not dictatorships in that sense. But the people on the streets want a fundamental change to the way their societies are organised. In Chile, this ended up focussing on the need for a new constituent assembly to rewrite Chile’s constitution which had been bequeathed from the transition from a military dictatorship. This method was also used in Venezuela as a mechanism to initiate a process of radical change in 1999 after Hugo Chavez won the presidential election and again in 2017 to defend against the empire’s stool pigeons inside the country being used to foment a coup. In many protests new forms of mass decision, people’s assemblies and new forms of popular power are being experimented with.

Advanced capitalist world

The working class in the advanced capitalist countries is also getting more restive. The US has seen the highest number of workers on strike since the 1980s.

A fuel price rise in France led to a million-strong online petition and then the eruption of weekly protests from November 2018 by thousands of people donning yellow vests. This has now been joined by a broader working-class revolt and a prolonged general strike against attempts to cut pensions.

The UK has been engulfed in a political crisis for the last few years as people used a referendum over leaving Europe as a means to protest the destruction of working-class communities across Britain as a consequence of the anti-working class policies adopted by both Conservative and Labour Party-led governments.  

The working class used the chance to elect a genuine socialist, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 and hundreds of thousands joined the party to vote for him. He crushed the opposition with a 59% vote share in a democratic one-person-one-vote electoral system. However, he has been undermined and betrayed by a majority of Labour MPs who were selected during the period of betrayal of party principles by the then leader Tony Blair. This included forcing the country into a hugely unpopular war against Iraq which Corbyn opposed. These MPs demanded a new election of the party leader in 2016 which Corbyn won with 61% of the vote. 

UK election results

The ruling class and their media attack dogs have treated Corbyn’s leadership of the party as an existential threat to their power and privileges. Labour’s share of the vote under Corbyn, despite the sabotage from within, went to 40 percent in 2017 compared to only 29% in 2010 and 30% in 2015 before Corbyn was elected. This was one of the biggest surges in UK electoral history. It was the highest percentage won by Labour since 1992. The right wing of the Labour Party was openly disappointed and renewed their attacks on Corbyn by way of thanks. In the 2017 election, Labour promised to respect the vote to leave Europe and simply negotiate the best terms for working people.

Unfortunately, this advance in electoral support was largely reversed in the recent election with a drop to 32.2%. This came about because the right and centre of the party locked Corbyn into a position of supporting a second referendum on “Brexit” – leaving the European Union. This was seen by many Labour supporters who supported Leave as an attempt to overturn the democratic decision already made. Many voted Tory or the Brexit Party to ensure the decision was respected.

The working class is trying to reclaim the Labour Party as an instrument of struggle to advance their interests. But they are discovering there remains much work to be done for this to be successful. One can only hope the Corbyn wing of the party can win the next leadership election in the new year to continue the process of transformation. That will require patient work in the North of England on the ground alongside people in their daily struggles for survival to win the trust of working people again. It will also require the removal of the Blairite traitors who remain as MPs by genuine working-class fighters. 

In most of the rest of Europe, the old social-democratic parties have simply become tools of the system and have subordinated themselves to capitalism rather than challenge it. This has often led to them being reduced to being minor parties in the electoral system (Germany, France, Greece). 

Many places have seen new left-wing parties emerge to challenge the status-quo (Left Party in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece) but they still seem committed to merely getting elected to modify the system for the better rather than seeking a transformational change. 

But today, in the context of a climate emergency, extreme inequality, and permanent economic stagnation and austerity in most of the capitalist world, this is not a way forward for the planet or working people.

Where progressive left-wing governments have been elected they have come under unrelenting pressure from the capitalist world system which no country can be completely free from. In some cases, they surrender to that pressure and betray their supporters. That was true in Greece under the supposedly left-wing Syriza government which was recently thrown out of office in an election.

Pink Tide in Latin America

Latin America has seen the biggest number of left-wing governments elected (Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Paraguay, Honduras, Uruguay, Argentina). It was dubbed the “Pink Tide”. These governments were all aided by a commodities boom in the 2000s that gave them some money for more redistributive policies that could attack the entrenched poverty. But the local ruling classes and their backers from the US empire have been unrelenting in their opposition. Nearly every elected government was driven out of office through ultimate election defeats (Uruguay, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina) or a military coup (Bolivia, Honduras), or a combination of both (Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil). 

Argentina has now just gone back to a more centre-left President and Mexico joined the “Pink Tide” phenomenon with the election of a left-wing President and congress in 2018 for the first time in many decades. 

So far, Venezuela has survived all attempts to overthrow the elected government. This is despite the collapse of oil prices on which they had depended for much of their social spending and the US imperialist imposed blockade and repeated coup attempts. This economic, social; and political war against Venezuela has created huge hardships for the people. But they stubbornly refuse to surrender despite the hardship.

I think the revolution has survived because they went further in transforming the military – a necessary first step to prevent a future coup – including by the formation of a mass militia. Also, new forms of people’s power have been systematically developed rather than relying only on forms of electoral representation like an elected parliament. These grass-roots organisations are called Communes and they combine a territorial area with the production of food and services, house building and allocation, and education and health provision. They are governed by principles of self-management and participatory democracy. The process of creating these organs of popular power seems agonisingly slow from the outside but I think it is easy to underestimate the magnitude of the challenges involved. 

I am also hopeful that the Bolivian people will be able to overturn the coup in their country because they have very powerful forms of popular power based on unions of workers and cocoa growers, mass indigenous peoples organisations, and self-organised shanty-town dwellers who are battle-hardened from decades of struggle. They will need to neutralise or destroy the old military and police structures as they reclaim their elected organs of power and institutionalise the forms of people’s power they are demonstrating on the streets today to protect the revolutionary process against future attempts to overthrow it.

Lesson from Latin America 

Latin America offers useful lessons for those of us who are living in the advanced capitalist world as well. 

Millions of young people are already campaigning for radical measures needed to combat climate change. It is becoming obvious to many that a fundamental change to the economic structure is needed. Capitalism, a system of unrelenting growth in the pursuit of personal greed is incompatible with the earth and those of us – workers and farmers – who produce the wealth. The grotesque inequality that is an inevitable result of this system must be eliminated.

There is a mass discussion taking place on the type of measures needed to protect working people while we transform the way we produce the food and goods necessary for a rich life. In the US it is called the Green New Deal. In the UK Labour Party, it was dubbed the Green Industrial Revolution. 

The problem is that the vast majority of people today live lives as atomised consumers. We don’t think and act collectively in our daily lives. We don’t have the tools to collectively solve the problems we face. This is a capitalist form of citizenship. 

We are allowed to vote every few years, but usually not for any choices that would change things fundamentally. Increasingly people don’t bother taking part in elections – certainly this is true at the local level.

Building people’s power at a local level

In New Zealand, local councils have no real power. By law, they have to contract out the provision of most services to private profit companies. Councils used to own the public transport system, rubbish collection agencies, road and sewage system repairs. My Dad was a “Council Drainlayer”. 

We are now isolated in our own homes and barely talk to our neighbours. We don’t know how to build or repair our homes or grow food. Accessing medical care, housing, education, culture and welfare is an individual nightmare to be resolved according to our income but not a problem to be solved collectively with our neighbours. 

To bring about the change we need in society, we need a program of change like the Green New Deal to transform the economy, create jobs, provide healthy homes, tackle inequality. A strong union movement will be part of the decision-making process. But we also need a radical program to create new forms of people’s power in our communities. Today we should be fighting to create self-governing collectives, chosen from among the people in community assemblies. The collective should be empowered to:

  • Look after all social housing in the area with tenants involved in all decisions. Retrofit every home to be warm and green. Build new social housing to eliminate homelessness.

  • Use all educational facilities in an area and open schools up for the community to use for sport and culture

  • Create community-owned media if all forms – newspapers, radio, social media.

  • Create community gardens and kitchens – including in every school. Relying on food from cans and fast food joints is killing and maiming thousands of people every year through obesity, diabetes, and consequent blindness and limb amputations.

  • Create sharing and learning centres. We can learn from each other the skills for life. 

  • Create a community health centre responsible for delivering care to every person for no charge. Medical care should shift from prescribing drugs to “fix” people to a whole care approach. Proper mental health care requires the end of isolation and alienation.

  • Build public transport networks, cycleways, cooperative electric transport solutions

  • Create cooperatives for energy production (wind and solar) 

  • Establish community-controlled education and care for the very young and elderly. Who decided that those tasks would be turned over to for-profit companies in New Zealand.

  • Establish community advocates who ensure every person has access to any welfare or housing support they need

No longer would people live isolated lives. Every old person at home or in care would be being visited or able to volunteer for useful community activities. Every child would be educated (and immunised) as a community responsibility. Everyone would be able to grow and eat nutritious food. Everyone would have access to sport, culture, exercise, books, films, theatre, music. 

These collectives would also be powerful centres of resistance to any going back to the old ways of selfishness and greed that are extolled as virtues under capitalism.

In New Zealand, we have the advantage that Maori have understood these principles and fought to maintain them against colonisation and corporatisation. 

We need a radical Green New Deal to bring large sectors of the economy under public ownership and democratic control and transform agriculture. But we also need new ways to create real power in local communities alongside powerful unions able to exercise real workers’ control over large corporate structures, private or state, that still exist.

Many people wanting real change classify themselves as some kind of “revolutionary” but effectively reject the struggle for reforms of the system that would aid working people. This often also means dismissing participation in the system's elected forms of representation like a parliament.

Often these “revolutionary” groups fail to participate in the day to day struggles for survival of working people through their unions or community organisations dedicated to ensuring access to basic needs of survival. These revolutionaries only weapon is the typewriter and printing broadsheets or blogging becomes the limit of their “revolutionary” activity.

The end result of this sort of activity is zero progress for working people.

The opposite approach is to limit your activity to whatever the system will permit. This is the politics represented by traditional social democracy. This seems to be a successful strategy only when the capitalist system is expanding rapidly, unemployment is reducing, workers are getting more power, and the bosses feel wealthy enough to share some crumbs to keep everyone quiet.

This was true in Europe and the US for the period after the worldwide capitalist crisis in the 1890s until World War 1, and again for several decades after the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War 2.

It also helps if there are strong voices advocating a genuine socialist alternative that has a mass hearing among working people to put the frighteners on the capitalist class. This was also true for both these periods.

As soon as the capitalist system starts refusing concessions traditional social democracy ends up being an enforcer of the takebacks from working people that are imposed by capitalism rather than an enabler of working-class power. Support for social democracy then collapses in disappointment.

This has been the reality for social democracy across Europe, in Japan, and with some ups and downs in Australasia.

The problem today is that capitalism seems to have entered a period of what has been dubbed by even pro-capitalist economists as a period of secular stagnation. The growth that has occurred in recent decades has been enabled by and greater and greater extension of credit (debt to us).  The last world recession in 2008-9 was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recovery from that recession only happened by maintaining and extending the massive debt balloon that hangs over the world. Recessions are actually capitalist crises of overproduction - that is overproduction of commodities in relation to the ability to buy. But it is also the over-extension of credit money in relationship to real money (gold) that it pretends to represent.  

A general crisis is usually triggered by the collapse of financial institutions associated with the over-extension of credit and a portion of the credit money is simply wiped out to bring it back into line with the real monetary base. The collapse in credit money will force the most over-extended and least efficient commodity producers out of business and a recession/depression ensues.

This is the way capitalism cleanses itself for a renewed period of growth. But the more the system depends on debt, and the more the system tries to stop the cleansing process proceeded as it must, the less powerful is the recovery and the system remains even more exposed the next time the cyclical downturn hits.

There can never be a return to strong capitalist growth without another Great Depression (and probably world war) to restore the system to capitalist "health".

That is not a solution working people can hope for.

Working people need a strategy that can provide answers to the very real problems of surviving with dignity under capitalism. That means having strong unions and parties to represent us in parliament.

But the solutions we put forward to get mass support for should be solutions that look to replace a system based on the pursuit of private profit with a system the empowers workers and has solutions to social problems based on collective solidarity.

This has become of even greater importance as it has become more and more obvious that tackling the climate crisis is only possible with a system not based on relentless growth and the pursuit of profit.

These policies can be put together as a plan for a Green New Deal to combat climate change that priorities well-paid jobs, public housing, health care and education or all. Such a Green New Deal should include these essential features:

  • Capitalist monopolies in energy, transport and finance have to be brought into public ownership and control. They should be subject to democratic plans drawn up by the whole community. Workers should have much stronger decision making powers within them.

  • All economic sectors to be made take steps needed to decarbonise the economy as much as is needed to reach zero net emissions by 2030.

  • Free and frequent public transport on electric buses and/or trains in all main cities.

  • Health care and education for life should be free and universally accessible.

  • Welfare, pensions, child allowances, should be universal wherever possible.

  • Taxation should be on wealth before income.

  • Public housing at fixed and affordable should be a right of all not just the desperately poor.

  • All workers should have a right to a job and the workweek reduced with no loss of pay to make that possible.

  • Local communes should be supported for control and delivery of as many functions of the centralised state as possible – including housing, education, health care.

  • Local communes to support cooperative forms of production for food production, solar and wind energy,  electric transport, and media.

This Green New Deal would inevitably be met by the fiercest opposition from the ruling class and their paid mouthpieces. It would also be met by sabotage from within the existing state institutions - the police and military in the first instance. 

Ony by mobilising in our millions can we create the unions and parties with the fighting capacity to implement the programme and defeat that opposition once and for all by building a new state based on the deepest forms of democratic participation.