On 12 September, three Workers’ Liberty comrades who have been involved in Workers’ Climate Action attended the first half of the Socialist Resistance/Green Left “Climate and Capitalism” conference.
(Socialist Resistance was previously the International Socialist Group, the British section of the Fourth International. Green Left is a caucus within the Green Party.)
There were seventy or eighty people there, mostly in their 40s, 50s or older, though with a smattering of younger people.
One session, in which Swedish Volvo worker and Fourth International supporter Lars Henriksson discussed the concept of “alternative production” (what WCA has called “workers-led just transition”), was excellent. For me, that served to highlight the failings of the event as a whole.
The political tone was set by the opening speeches. Romayne Phoenix of Green Left gave a fairly bland speech, which to be honest you could barely define as anti-capitalist; it wasn’t all that different from something Caroline Lucas might say. You might have expected Ian Angus, the Canadian Fourth International supporter who was the conference’s guest of honour, and who edited the collection of essays on The Global Fight for Climate Justice which SR have been pushing, to be better. He wasn’t, not fundamentally.
Angus gave an essentially classless view of the capitalism system; capitalism and imperialism were indicted, but their flipside, the development of the working class and the class struggle, were strangely absent. In a forty-odd minute speech, the working class was mentioned only once, in passing at the end. You were left with the impression that capitalism is a system of theft, of the rich world plundering resources from the poor – which is of course part of the picture, but misses out the fundamental dynamics of surplus value, of the exploitation of the working class by capital, and the resistance and possibilities for reorganising society this generates.
Angus rightly condemned those who talk about “people” degrading the environment, when actually the “people” doing it are capitalists. He talked about the bosses as “personifications of capital”, but failed to identify the fact that capital can only exist as a social relation, that to exist it must generate and regenerate a class of people who will eventually be its gravedigger. (I understand that Angus’ collaborator Joel Kovel has made his rejection of working-class agency explicit.)
In general terms, this is a regression from the insights of Marxism to utopian socialism – utopian because it is a good idea in general, but there is no social force that can actually put it into practice. In terms of ecology, it means airbrushing from the picture the very people who can take hold of production and reorient it according to alternative social goals, including the preservation of the ecosystem. (This is no airy abstraction, as we will see when I discuss Lars Henriksson’s workshop.) Angus cited Walter Benjamin’s powerful metaphor, made in the context of the 1930s’ rush towards fascist barbarism and war, that revolutions are not so much the “locomotives of history” as a way of humanity putting on the brakes. The relevance in terms of dangerous climate change is obvious, but to mix up the metaphor a little (in Benjamin's original it is the passengers doing the braking) Angus, if you like, has got rid of the train driver and the other rail workers – there is no one capable of pulling the lever.
All this was compounded by the more general political problems of the Fourth International tendency (or at least the wing of it that Angus and Socialist Resistance represent). Angus cited positively the experiences of Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela, quoting extensively from Bolivian president Evo Morales. This was hung on the hook of the struggle for indigenous rights, somewhat disingenuously. No one is denying the importance of indigenous struggles, or their relationship to battles over the environment, but it may be doubted that the capitalist governments of Bolivia and Venezuela are authentic expressions of these struggles. Absent, completely absent, was the idea of the organised working class linking up with indigenous and other subordinate groups to lead a proletarian revolution against all exploitation and oppression.
The workshop I attended, run by Lars Henriksson, a worker at the Volvo plant in Gothenburg in Sweden, stood in stark contrast to Phoenix and Angus’ classless, ‘ecopopulist’ introductions. It deepened and concretised my understanding of issues which Workers’ Climate Action has been raising for some time under the label of “workers-led just transition” to a sustainable economy. Here it was discussed as “alternative production”.
As in Britain, the US and many other countries, the car industry in Sweden is being devastated by the economic crisis. Henriksson indentified two dominant strands in bourgeois responses. The first is the neoliberal approach of letting it rip, waving goodbye to the jobs and assuming the market will right itself eventually; there is also a green version, which is pleased to see the destruction of the car industry. (This sort of view has been expressed in the UK by George Monbiot.) The other, favoured by Sweden’s social democrats for instance, is for government subsidies to keep the car firms in business.
Naturally revolutionary socialists and all serious working-class activists reject the ‘let it rip’ option. As Henriksson explained, to throw thousands of car workers on the scrap heap would be both a social disaster and an irresponsible waste of human and technological resources which could, as we shall see, be used for goals other than the production of cars. But the conservative option is also unjustifiable, both in terms of the damaging nature of what he and his co-workers produce, and the corresponding unlikeliness of assembling a popular coalition in defence of giving multinationals billions to keep destroying the planet.
The "third way" Henriksson identified is for workers to fight for a reorganisation of production, to use the skills and technical resources of the industry to produce not things that are profitable but things that are needed - for instance public transport, or wind turbines. The classic example, which he cited, is the plan developed by Lucas Aerospace workers in the 1970s. Such plans must be forced on the bosses; if necessary, this can include the demand for nationalisation of factories and firms. The conversion of whole industries means that the organised collective of workers within them that has demanded conversion is kept together, still able to organise collectively as a class, rather than being scattered to the winds. (This is also part of the socialist answer to unemployment; demanding that as part of conversion plans, workplaces take on more workers, as for instance the worker-occupied Zanon tile factory in Argentina has made an effort to do.)
The precondition for anything like this to happen, of course, is increased confidence and organisation on the part of the workers, which is particularly difficult in an economic crisis when the unions are retreating from even the fight to save jobs, conditions etc. Henriksson admitted that these ideas seem like “science fiction” to many of his colleagues – particularly in a context of not only recession and retreat, but increased management authoritarianism in the workplace and bureaucratic control in the unions. Nonetheless, this is the necessary fight.
In other words, working-class activists need to go beyond struggles over wages and conditions to critique what is produced and how. (By the way, Alan Thornett, an ISG member who was a militant at the Cowley car plant in Oxford, made a contribution about how in the 70s no car workers cared about these questions. Apparently he makes this speech quite a lot. In fact, he is wrong to assume that his own ignorance was universal. Chrysler workers in Coventry, for instance, did come up with a plan for conversion in the late 70s.)
At the same time, Henriksson stressed that these politics are not an alternative to ‘bread and butter’ organising – in fact, they can only come to fruition in a labour movement that is militant and organised on the basic questions. (The classic example of this, which I mentioned, is the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation of the 1960s and 70s, which after a period of building confidence and organisation through battles to ‘civilise the industry’ developed militant environmental and social politics.) This is something which many environmentalists, excited by the idea of car workers demanding alternative production, miss or fail to understand.
There are hidden sensibilities, talents and creativity in the working class which in the everyday grind of exploitation remain more or less dormant, but which struggle can free and allow to flourish. The condition for fighting for “alternative production” is being able to fight in general.
Henriksson also discussed the role of two kinds of “workers’ plans” – ‘local’, workplace or industry-based plans, like at Lucas, and society wide plans for reorienting production on a bigger scale. One example of the latter is the plan for transforming Europe’s public transport systems, produced earlier this year by transport unions including the RMT, which sets out concrete steps for reducing emissions from transport by 75 percent. In both cases the point should be to mobilise workers to put pressure on the bosses, whether directly or on the capitalist government.
I pushed Henriksson a little on the contrast, and maybe contradiction, between the class-focus his speech had assumed and developed, and the woolly populism of the conference as a whole. He denied a contradiction, claiming a difference between the general and the specific; but I think the point is that the Angus/SR etc approach generally writes the working class out of the picture, ruling out a focus on specific developments which see working-class organisation as key. There seem to be two souls of "ecosocialism", as the conference organisers describe their political philosophy.
I’m not claiming that Socialist Resistance and Green Left oppose projects such as Henriksson’s; of course, they invited him to speak. But either working-class organisation is the key to developing a socialist approach to climate change or it isn't. The conference left the issue open, but it is clear that many of the participants have no particular working-class focus. There was no Vestas worker speaking, despite the fact that WCA, when it asked to speak and was rejected, was told that there would be; and, very peculiarly, the speaker from Climate Camp was not from the class-struggle wing of that movement, but from what I am told essentially a liberal. We couldn't stay for the afternoon sessions; class may have entered into the discussions more as the day went on. But there are clearly important political differences and contradictions which the participants were reluctant to tease out.
A class-based approach is why Workers’ Climate Action exists. Sad to say, I didn't recognise many of those present at the conference from Vestas, Climate Camp or other living struggles going on. WCA, in contrast, is central to organising in these areas - and develops its ideas on that basis. Hope to see you at its conference on 10 October!
For a critique of Ian Angus' book, see here.