The World Transformed: scratching the surface

Submitted by martin on 5 October, 2021 - 11:04 Author: Sara Lee and Abel Harvie-Clark
The World Transformed in Brighton

A lot of radical things were said at this year’s The World Transformed festival. As one participant said, many speeches only scratched the surface. Clear political conclusions or concrete demands weren’t always drawn out. For example, at a panel on “Kill The Bill,” speakers said that we cannot support police reform and that we must instead “abolish the police” – all the while talking about the negative implications of the police bill. Occasional jibes were made at “white people talking about Trotsky or whatever, telling us how to do a revolution.” Nevertheless, TWT was an informal, accessible place for people – especially curious Brightonians - to at least check out left ideas. Many speakers were from Momentum, but Momentum as an organisation did not have a strong presence. There was a small and inconspicuous stall for sign-ups that wasn’t always manned.

On the opening Saturday, a community centre room was packed and overflowing for “Latin America Rising: Imperialism, Resistance and Solidarity”. As one of the few events focused on politics outside the UK, it was good to see keen interest from the crowd, but the event unfortunately provided little insight into workers and grassroots movements on the continent, and how direct solidarity can be built, and instead tended towards the binary 2-camp view of geopolitics that already receives ample coverage in mainstream media. Imperialism was presented solely as that of the US, and any ‘resistance’ to that uncritically supported. Natasha Hickman, long-term employee of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, committed solidarity to the Cuban regime, making efforts to minimise the political basis for the recent popular protests in Cuba, assigning their agency to pro-US actors and social media meddling. On Bolivia, speaker Claudia Turbet Delof described how a relative serving as a police officer only became questionable in her eyes once the government changed from left to right-leaning. On Brazil, London’s PT representative Julia Spatuzzi Felmanas introduced the context of the rise of the Brazilian far-right without any mention of how the “Workers’ Party” failed to back the mass popular mobilisations and strikes when it was in government. Overall, the campist and bureaucratic perspectives of the speakers made for a disappointing meeting, compounded by minimal time for questions at the end. This pattern of knowledge being unidirectionally passed from high profile top table speakers down to audience members was an overly familiar theme at TWT21.

On Sunday there was a panel on “Winning Climate Justice,” where Corbyn gave a speech that was far more moderate than that of his fellow panellists. Speaking to a packed tent, Asad Rehman, Director of War on Want, gave a booming speech on internationalism, calling for the UK to give three trillion in reparations to the Global South. He talked about the need for a global NHS and a global Green New Deal, making multiple references to the imperialist nature of the IMF and World Bank. Zarah Sultana quoted Andreas Malm, a Swedish Trotskyist, and rightly criticised the “Anthropocene” narrative for letting the billionaires off the hook. Climate change is the fault of capitalism, she said, and “we need a socialist climate movement.” This was followed by a reference to the “socialist electoral project in Westminster to gain state power,” although she also mentioned the need to organise on the streets and in trade unions.

Importantly, Zarah Sultana said that we needed to take fossil fuel companies under public ownership so that "we can manage the transition." She was critical of the Labour leadership for not saying or doing enough on climate change “despite the best efforts of Ed Miliband.” Of course, Ed Miliband was the man who refused to nationalise the Vestas wind turbine factory when workers occupied it to resist its closure (which goes to show it is not just fossil fuels companies that need to be taken under public ownership!)

Clive Lewis said a lot of things that seemed broadly very good. The sort of language he used was particularly striking. He described the climate crisis as “a problem of democracy” and said that the “commanding heights of the economy” need to be brought under democratic control. He rightly argued for free speech, the right to protest and better union rights, saying that we needed to “radically change democracy”. But this was followed by a curious remark that this is why Britain needs “a constitution” and “a democratic revolution.” He then encouraged people to look out for and sign up for “Global Green New Deal”, “the gold standard of Green New Deals.”

Jeremy Corbyn and Olivia Blake gave particularly lacklustre speeches, in which rewilding, floodplains and drainage systems featured heavily. Olivia Blake mentioned decarbonising supply chains, fighting for democratic transport systems, ethical procurement and “making the most of devolution.” Corbyn talked about Britain needing to declare a climate emergency and to have a sustainable trade system. Instead of importing and exporting from Australia, things should be made locally, he argued. He got it right when he said we should build solidarity between environmentalists and workers, making a reference to David Graeber’s efforts to bring together protestors against an oil refinery and the refinery workers.

It was impossible to verify this because of the sheer size of the audience and the fact that only a few questions from the floor were taken, but more than one participant noted that the audience at this event seemed politically to the right of the panellists. One question was about how to make the environmental ministry “the nodal ministry.” Another question was about how we can popularise “slow fashion.” To this, Asad Rehman replied that it would be better to hold fashion brands and the garment industry to account.

When asked about climate refugees and what we can do about it, Zarah Sultana’s answer was to get rid of the Tories and to have a progressive party in power. International law must also recognise climate refugees, she said. Out of all the panellists, only Asad Rehman said people should have the right of free movement. He went further to argue that the environmental movement must be political, engaging on all questions including borders, war and the far-right.

Towards the end, the panel on climate justice was interrupted by Piers Corbyn (wearing a T-shirt) and his group of five. They heckled the panellists and one of them approached the stage, apparently in an attempt to mount it. Unfortunately the disruption was still ongoing when an organiser for COP26 actions was making a good speech about the Green Bans, making criticisms of David Attenborough, “luxury Communists” and “accelerationists.”

It was also unfortunate (although noteworthy) that only about 10-15 people attended the workshop on “the rank-and-file strategy.” Jamie Woodcock (Notes from Below) and Ray Morrell (Unite) both gave useful talks that will soon be available on the Notes from Below website. Jamie Woodcock gave practical advice about workplace bulletins and how to use them to build networks and start conversations. Ray Morrell gave a good explanation of the union bureaucracy – that militant reps are often taken out of direct conflict between workers and the bosses and put into a mediating role, developing a relationship with the bosses that they prioritise over their relationship with workers. This, he said, leads the union bureaucrats to take a more conservative approach to strike action. He told many important stories that deserve to be kept alive in the memory of socialists and trade unionists, such as the story of the Blackfriars action which brought together Occupy protesters and workers. At one point, it was implicitly suggested that bureaucracy in a union, or any organisation, was inevitable.

Not all participants agreed with this, but it was important food for thought. Another thought-provoking remark was that “we are less concerned about the divide between left and right, and more concerned about the divide between the union bureaucracy and the rank-and-file.” Important questions were asked about dual-carding and whether or not we should ever participate in union elections. Jamie Woodcock talked about the need for term limits and why socialists shouldn’t go into full-time organising jobs for the long-term.

A highlight of the festival was the Stop TUI anti-deportation demo. It had the support of a local anti-racist student group and was led by MP Nadia Whittome on the back of speaking on a panel about refugee and migrants rights. Around 250 people turned out and marched to the local TUI store (well protected by a line of cops), the holiday company who holds the principal government contract for carrying out deportation flights, and came as part of a wave of similar protests across the country. This kind of action should be exemplary for the Labour Party and labour movement representatives in standing up for migrants and asylum rights. It was good to see TWT backing this, and the enjoyment of the demo will hopefully encourage TWT to orientate more to real-world action in the future.

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