“System change, not climate change”, and similar slogans, were prominent on the 6 November demonstrations for the COP26 summit. Yes, we need to change the whole economic, social and political set-up, not just reduce emissions personally. What new system should we seek? And how?
“One solution, revolution”, chanted the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Appeal on the London demonstration. That doesn’t help: who are they asking to do that? How?
We are for a workers’ socialist revolution, in which the global working class replaces the power of capital with a new system based on collective ownership and production for need.
But “revolution” in general - Stalinist revolution, say - doesn’t help. To build up, radicalise and empower workers’ movements so we can move towards socialist revolution, and win serious measures to curb climate change and mitigate its impact on the way, requires sustained organising. It requires sustained struggle for measures of what Marx called “the political economy of the working class” which both bring immediate improvements and begin to outline the shape of a new system.
Self-evidently capitalists and capitalist governments can be shifted on climate change, since they have shifted repeatedly, over years now. But so far, capital has faced relatively little effective pressure from workers’ struggles and labour movements.
Unlike in, say, China, workers’ and climate movements in Britain and similar political systems have legal space to organise, protest, bring pressure to bear and win changes. What we have achieved so far is meagre.
Governments have moved mostly under the pressure from warnings from the more far-sighted bourgeois organisations and scientists.
Our movement, hundreds of millions strong globally, with organisation in the key centres and structures of the global economy, needs to be mobilised to shift things much more radically.
The starting point is to counterpose the needs of workers, people and planet to capitalism’s drive for profit — to assert against the profit-system what Karl Marx called “social production controlled by social foresight”. We must exert pressure for governments to override the interests of profit, and use that as a lever to replace existing governments with ones more responsive and accountable to labour movements and climate struggles.
We need a massive redistribution of wealth and power from capital and the rich to workers and the poor, across the world, and within that from the rich in the richest countries to the people of the poorer parts.
Green New Deal?
In discussions about a “Green New Deal”, the labour movement should assert a version with radical, anti-capitalist demands, as the first steps in radically reorganising societies and planning economies to meet people’s need.
The 6 November demonstrations were clearly left-wing, but characterised by a severe lack of specific radical demands. General agitation to “do something” is not sufficient. It can lead to movements being fobbed off with tokens, planting token numbers of trees, for example, or diverted, as when Green pressure pushed Germany’s government into shutting down nuclear power stations and replacing them, immediately, by coal power.
The Green New Deal motions passed Labour conference this year and in 2019 laid down some specifics:
• Public ownership and democratic control of the energy industry, allowing decisive action to eliminate fossil fuels and end fuel poverty
• Free or cheap, expanded and publicly-owned public transport
• A mass programme of building, repairing, insulating etc. energy-efficient council housing
• A big expansion of aid and assistance from rich to poor countries
• Repeal of the ban on workers striking over climate issues, and all other restrictions on strikes and workers’ actions
• Millions of new well-paid, secure, unionised, “green” jobs of various sorts, in the public sector
Solidarity argues for those “green jobs” - building low-emission infrastructure; reducing energy demand by insulation, re-design, etc; converting transport and agriculture; developing carbon drawdown technology; etc. - to be defined by workers’ plans for converting industries while making the rich (not workers) pay the costs. We fight to target the wealth of the rich and super-rich to unlock the resources necessary for our demands.
We fight for the demand made by the Fire Brigades Union — public ownership and democratic control of the big banks and financial institutions, allowing a decisive break in the financial-fossil fuel link and reorientation of finance’s vast resources towards beating rather than fuelling climate change and inequality.
Socialists are vocal advocates for these kind of anti-capitalist, pro-working-class demands. We fight seriously for the labour movement to take them up and champion them, seeking to draw the widest possible layers of both trade union and climate activists into that fight.
This is a matter of democratising our labour movement — by mobilising workers to fight for the policies their organisations’ democratic structures have agreed, and for their bureaucratic apparatuses to stop ignoring these decisions and instead help build the fight.
The labour movement has huge potential power, in weight of numbers and workers’ role in economies and societies. But for that power to become real, and have an impact, it needs to actually be wielded.
In the UK, though many trade unionists and Labour activists organised enthusiastically for the COP26 mobilisations, the labour movement as a whole did little. The Labour Party machine did nothing. Trade union promotion and mobilisation, certainly by union leaders and officials, was sluggish.
The “green bans” by building workers in New South Wales, Australia, in the 1970s, grew out of political discussion and radicalisation, but also out of the union gaining strength and wielding solidarity through winning battles on pay and conditions.
As yet, unions often take conservative positions on climate. GMB and Unite, the two biggest private sector unions, with important bases in many high-emissions sectors and companies, generally advocate a short-sighted and narrow position of defending (supposedly defending) existing jobs at the expense of everything else. The only climate motion passed by this year’s TUC Congress, proposed by GMB, was along those conservative and de facto pro-fossil fuel lines.
The embryo of an alternative approach is visible in the conversion plans developed by the auto and aerospace components workers at GKN Driveline in Birmingham. Threatened with the closure of their plant, they have developed a proposal to retool it for electric vehicle supply chains — arguing for its technology and resources and their skills to be used to contribute to the fight against climate change. (See more from Green Party Trade Union Group convenor and Free Our Unions activist Matthew Hull here.)
The venture capitalists who own GKN, Melrose, have dismissed the workers’ proposals. Winning such demands is a matter of serious class struggle: of imposing them on the capitalist class.
We need conversion and transformation plans of various sorts across the economy, and not just in workplaces facing closures - developed and promoted by workers in the workplace and by unions and the labour movement widely.
We need a fight in our unions - and in the Labour Party - at many levels, from workplace transformation plans to wider climate policies, from industrial action to mobilising on the streets…
To develop these fights, we need to develop networks of trade union green reps and climate groups in workplaces, to formulate demands, discuss what needs to be done, and mobilise.
For now, there are fewer such reps now than a decade ago. The new rise in broader climate activism gives us openings to increase that organising and feed into mass recruitment to our unions, particularly recruitment of young workers.