Socialist Alternative

Covid denial, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers: A socialist response

On Saturday, up to 10,000 people, including Covid-19 denialists, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers gathered in Trafalgar Square to stage a ‘Unite for Freedom’ demonstration. Invited to speak were a wide array of so-called ‘health experts’, who peddled the idea that Covid was either entirely non-existent, or real but no worse than a common cold or flu, rejecting the established fact of over 850,00 registered deaths around the world and 41,000 in Britain (although both are serious underestimations). 

To the conspiracy theorists gathered, the (chaotic and entirely insufficient) efforts of world corporations and governments to create a vaccine by 2022 represent a nefarious plot for world domination by a secret ‘New World Order’.

Also very prominent in the protests was a clear far-right element. This is not to say that every single person attending was a far-right or racist, but a big chunk of the main speakers and major endorsers were. Dolores Cahill, a disgraced professor at University College Dublin and chair of the far-right racist Irish Freedom Party spoke. The demonstration was praised and attended by Gerard Batten, the former UKIP leader who was responsible for deliberately pushing the party into the hands of the open far-right – particularly in drawing the dwindling organisation closer to the likes of ‘Tommy Robinson’.

One further flagship speaker at the event was David Icke – a former Coventry City goalkeeper and sports commentator who is now a conspiracy theorist, whose ideas contain a heavy current of antisemitic tropes – for instance in his idea that the world is controlled by a select group of ‘Zionist bankers’ in league with shapeshifting reptilians (actual lizards). One prominent image also shared on social media was of a protestor flying the flag of the British Union of Fascists – the Nazi-sympathising pre-WWII organisation that gained notoriety for leading violent marches through areas of London’s East End which housed the city’s working-class Jewish population. This says a lot about the layers this march for ‘Freedom’ attracted. 

Police response

Unsurprisingly, the response from the Met Police has been one of arrests and clampdowns. Piers Corbyn (brother of Jeremy Corbyn), a well-known climate change denier now faces a possible fine of £10,000 for his role in organising the event. 

Although socialists should have absolutely no sympathy for the views of Piers Corbyn and Icke, it would be a mistake to support state fines for protesting, even against conspiracy theorists and the far-right. One obvious reason for this is that it does not actually help in undermining the support for conspiracy theories – a response of this type merely allows Piers Corbyn to paint himself as a ‘martyr for the cause’! 

But we also have to consider what the fundamental role of the state – and of the police – is under capitalism. Any act of repression carried out by the state, even against blatantly reactionary and dangerous forces, could also be used as a weapon against those fighting for real change, whether that be the trade unions, the Black Lives Matter movement or the climate strikes. Any laws or measures that could be used as a pretext for the suppression of the democratic right to organise and protest cannot be accepted. This is not about support or apology for the dangerous anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, but a matter of how much faith we can invest in the forces of the state. 

Struggle needed 

Socialist Alternative supporters would also not respond to protests of this type by dismissing the right to protest altogether. Last month, thousands of NHS nurses and activists took to the streets with their own socially distanced protests to rightly demand a 15% pay rise from the government, who at every turn have endangered and undervalued essential workers under the pandemic. In almost every major city, Socialist Alternative intervened and even in some places played a role in organising protests. 

In the case of the momentous protests against systemic racism and the government chaos around A-level results, the government sought to use cynical scare tactics to undermine the protests, blaming organisers for a second Covid spike, all while presiding over the worst death rate in Europe, and one of the worst in the world.

All of this poses the question: how do we undercut the support of the ideas peddled on the ‘Unite for Freedom’ march? One major part of this will mean organising ourselves. The surest way to drown out the reactionary conspiracy peddlers will be to build in our unions and NHS campaign groups like Health Campaigns Together and Keep our NHS Public to expose the government’s role in exacerbating the crisis through clinging to its rotten free-market system in healthcare.

Socialist Alternative has consistently argued that we need to urgently organise conferences of resistance to tie together a variety of struggles that have emerged over the last year, and prepare for a new wave of mass struggle by workers and youth in the coming months and years. Through preparing, organising and getting ready for new battles against racism, Johnson and the climate crisis we would be able to expose how much of a fringe element the conspiracy theorists are, and how their ideas are at this stage rightly rejected by the vast majority of ordinary people. 

Capitalism breeds these ideas

In one sense, we can dismiss many of the ideas on these protests as nonsense, and most ordinary workers will do the same. All we need to do is listen to the experiences of the thousands of health workers who have risked their lives and endured traumatic experiences to cushion the blow of the virus. 

We can also ask some obvious questions. Why would the ruling class choose to engineer a fake pandemic to close down their own markets, triggering the worst economic downturn seen since the 1930s Great Depression? Given the struggles emerging in Lebanon and Belarus, and looming on the horizon elsewhere, why would the ruling class actively sabotage their own rule, especially since 2019 was accurately seen by many as a ‘year of revolutions’?

While asking these questions, we also need to understand where conspiracy theories come from, and how the system we live under breeds them. Capitalism, by its very nature, is a system based on the hoarded wealth and power of a super-rich elite presiding over society. Our political system is run and rigged by elite capitalist interests. Economic decisions that affect workers the most are made behind closed doors. Look no further than the government’s own response to the pandemic: blaming ordinary people (particularly BAME people) for going to parks and gathering outdoors, while the Tories have at every corner forced workers back into offices, students and teachers back into schools and kept non essential businesses open while sending confused and conflicting guidelines.

The power of this capitalist class stretches into every corner of society. Karl Marx once said:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch (era) the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” 

We can see this especially when we look at a media dominated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, and even in the so-called ‘impartial’ news outlets like the BBC, who blatantly act as mouthpieces for either the Tories or Keir Starmer, as he forces the Labour Party back towards Blairism.

This creates feelings of alienation among working class and young people, which can generate massive class anger, struggle and even revolutions. But, when nothing is provided to give a lead to workers in their workplaces, youth on the streets etc., from the trade unions and Starmer’s Labour, this alienation can be channelled into the false avenues of conspiratorial thinking. The ‘theorists’ like Icke will provide a convenient and quick explanation for all the problems of the world – even if this means going along with Icke’s ideas of an elite ‘lizard people’ running the Earth. This is a product of the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism can develop when workers haven’t built a clear leadership.

Genuine socialists reject conspiracy theories for a number of reasons. What always defines these ideas is a tendency to posit a ‘hidden’ elite, existing in the shadows and centred only around a set of key individuals, whether this be Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, George Soros or ‘Rothschild bankers’. But the existence of the capitalist class is not secret and goes beyond these individuals. While they do indeed conspire and plot to increase their wealth and power – even in world crises like this, they reflect a broader system of economic exploitation and global crisis, that is there for all to be seen and can only be challenged when we organise consciously and confidently through our unions and movements against oppression. 

This is why Socialist Alternative exists. Only on the basis of a socialist society, based on public ownership and workers control and management of the economy, will conspiratorial ideas be genuinely undermined.

“Dripping with blood and dirt”: How British capitalism relied on slavery

“Somebody sent me a leading article from The Economist the other day about the slave trade. It said ‘you can’t abolish the slave trade because there are all these ignorant blacks in Africa with nothing whatever to do, and they’re needed on the plantations of America’. So, The Economist said, you should regulate the slave trade.”
– Tony Benn

In response to the global explosion of the new Black Lives Matter wave, young people  in Britain have taken unprecedented steps to reappraise our legacy of imperialism and colonialism. From Edward Colston to Cecil Rhodes, a multiracial movement with BAME leadership has been drawing attention to the need to tear down the commemorative statues of racist, white supremacist figures that litter British history. 

This is a fundamentally positive change. By analysing our past, we can develop an understanding of racism as it exists today – not purely in terms of the attitudes of individual racists, but to look at the systemic roots of it. Indeed, the system of colonial exploitation and slavery by European powers was firmly rooted in the growing system of capitalism. Rather than slavery emerging because of a pre-existing anti-black racism, the reality was the opposite way around. Racist attitudes were, for centuries, deliberately fostered and whipped up by the British ruling class to justify its own practises.

The birth of capital 

British capitalism’s role in the slave trade was preceded by drastic changes in 17th century England. The growth of capitalist agriculture had laid the basis for the displacement of the rural, who had, up to this point, worked their land themselves. By passing Enclosure Acts through parliament (essentially land privatisations), the rural population was driven away from its means of life

At the same time, major changes were taking place in how the economy was structured. Governments were deliberately accompanying the Enclosures with the growing marketisation of the economy. All the while, the power of labourers to organise for decent living conditions were viciously repressed.

The landless peasants were overwhelmingly left without a choice but to make their way into the growing network of English towns and new factories. These settlements quickly came to act as centres for a developing capitalist class, which was to derive its wealth and power from the exploitation of the labour power of the urban proletariat.  

This transformation in the English economy laid the basis for global trade – albeit on a highly unequal, profit-seeking basis. The capitalists quickly saw to it that English capitalism in its nascent form would seize control of colonies throughout the Caribbean. 

From these bases, raw materials (particularly sugar cane and tobacco) would be harvested, to be sold across Europe. But who was to work the land? The colonists back home recognised that capitalism could only be developed if there was an arrangement that would allow for a rapid and unprecedented accumulation of wealth. To take on this task, the bourgeoisie began to rely on the use of  ‘indentured servitude’ – a system whereby poor English and Irish labourers would be hired to work in the colonies for periods of three to seven years at a time. 

Although the white forced labourers would usually be freed  to seek other employment after their time was up, the conditions they faced were brutal and degrading. They, just like slaves, were considered the property of the plantation owners, purely valued in terms of the material that they could harvest through backbreaking work before they had to be let free. In many cases, their contracts mutated into a form of slavery. Those servants who attempted to escape, upon being caught, were branded and had their times in captivity doubled, during which they would often die early in the harsh conditions of the Caribbean. 

Working alongside the servants was a smaller population of slaves captured from the West coast of Africa. From the point of view of the masters, there was great worry to be had in the prospect of white servants and black slaves finding common cause and uniting in struggle against their captors. These fears came to light in 1676, when, during the ‘Bacon’s Rebellion’ in Virginia, both servants and slaves united with ‘free’ labourers to challenge the rule of the slaveholding landlords. 

Terrified that this unity may be achieved again, the slaveholders enacted laws to strictly enforce racial segregation. If whites and blacks were kept apart, and the conditions for blacks dramatically worsened while conditions for whites fractionally improved, the white poor could be begin to feel as if they had a stake in the system, feeling a false sense of solidarity with their white owners, undercutting potential for struggles of the exploited to emerge. 

At the same time, under the conditions of the seismic English Revolution of the 1640s, news began to return home to England of the real conditions facing the servants. As the rumours spread, fewer and fewer agreed to sign up. To many, poverty at home was preferable to a life of humiliating torture abroad. Thus the wholesale importation of African slaves began. In Barbados in 1638, there were only 200 African slaves, while in 1653 the figure had jumped to 20,000.

Back home, the system had to devise a vast legal, political and religious outlook that would be able to justify Britain’s growing reliance on slavery. The courts quickly drafted up laws that decreed the ‘legality’ of the holding and sale of slaves. The church quickly ‘discovered’ a theological basis for slave holding, for instance in the Catholic doctrine that slaves in captivity would be ‘purified’ of their ‘original sin’. But nowhere did the intellectual justifications for slavery come from more than pseudo-scientific ‘race theories’. Reflecting the needs of the capitalists, the idea emerged  that those of African heritage made up an ‘inferior’ race, destined to live a social position below that of whites. 

The motive force for the development of these theories did not come from human nature. They existed to provide a pretext for capitalism’s growing reliance on the trading of human beings. It was out of this period that many of the racial categories we claim today – ‘black’ and ‘white’ – came to be.

The use of slavery quickly became a full-scale industrial operation. Whole cities were burned down on the West coast of Africa. Infrastructure and libraries were flattened. Any trace of advanced African civilization had to be eradicated to construct the idea of a continent of ‘savages’ in need of white control. From the point of view of the British ruling class, this made absolute sense. Only by doing this, could they provide an excuse for the unprecedented brutality that was taking shape. Slaves were to be forced onto boats at gunpoint, and shipped across the Atlantic in order to work 18 hour days in the boiling hot plantation fields. 12 million people were ultimately trafficked. Those slaves who either fell ill or disobeyed during the journey would be thrown overboard, and roughly 1.5 of those 12 million lost their lives while crossing the Atlantic. 

Of course, the practise of keeping slaves was not new. Slavery had long been practised by various class societies in history – particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. But this form was different in two ways. For one, in the ancient slave states, people were not enslaved according to their race. It was possible for people of all races to end up in shackles. Secondly, while these societies relied heavily on slavery, it was capitalism (particularly British capitalism) that relied on it for its economic development. It was none other than Karl Marx who carefully highlighted this at various points in his life, saying:

“Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.” – From The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) 

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” – From Capital, Vol. 1 (1867)

Abolition 

Capitalist historians today like to make out that slavery was abolished simply because of the moral goodness of the English bourgeoisie. This was far from the truth.

One of the major factors behind the end of Britain’s part in the slave trade was in the simple reality that the bourgeoisie had less and less use for it. British capitalism and the profits generated from slavery had given birth to a growing industrial working class, centred in cities, working the factories. Often employing children, on similar hours to those of slaves, the capitalists started to see this as a useful substitute for money spent on shipping human bodies from Western Africa to the Americas, when labourers could be exploited at home on new state-of-the-art industrial technology, while the British ruling class kept hold of its slaves regardless, abolishing their trade but not the use of them. 

Some began developing economic arguments against slavery. Adam Smith – now recognised as one of the great economic thinkers of capitalism – advocated abolition in his classic work The Wealth of Nations, on the grounds that it hindered economic development. The slaves would have no incentive to work creatively, and slaveholders would have no incentive to improve the productivity of their land. 

But, most crucially, the abolition of slavery was a product of struggle from below. Through the 18th and 19th century, slave revolts grew in frequency and determination, as did the working-class struggle in Britain. Just three years before the passing of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, black slaves on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), inspired by the Great French Revolution, overthrew their masters and established the first free black republic in modern history, as best outlined in C.L.R. James’ classic work, The Black Jacobins.  

British capitalism after slavery 

In the period running up to 2015, British taxpayers were still facing the cost of abolition, derived from a £300bn loan carried by the British government in 1835. But this was not funding in order to compensate the slaves: it was for the slave owners! This was the noble ‘abolition’ advocated by the politicians of the ruling class. 

And while we are fed the lie that the 1807 Act ‘abolished slavery’, the truth is more complicated. Although it did end British participation in the slave trade, slaves were still kept under the control of their owners for more than 30 years, under a rebranded system of ‘apprenticeship’. The continued profiting off mass enslavement was thus kept in place. 

Many socialists will quote Marx when he said that capitalism “comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” This was no exaggeration. Even after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, colonial subjugation continued to be the lifeblood of British (and European) capitalism. The racist myths that poison many corners of the world today owe their existence to this – from Southern Africa, to India and beyond, this legacy maintains its existence to the present day. 

Many might ask themselves today: ‘How is it that people kept silent while the slave trade was in full swing? Why did people not speak out?’. One obvious answer is that they did, in the form of a powerful abolitionist movement, with a conscious working class element. But also, while the ruling class no longer invests directly in chattel slavery, it still presides over a world system of ruthless exploitation, poverty and racial oppression. Racism is now, as it was then, part and parcel of the system of capitalism in the US, Britain and worldwide. 

The connections between systemic racism today and then can be seen everywhere. Indeed, the party of slavery were the Tories. From Enoch Powell’s infamous racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, to Windrush and Grenfell, the Tories’ anti-migrant racism ultimately has its roots in the social system of black slavery. This is not to say that all Tories are akin to slave owners. But the division fostered by capitalism has, through history, acted to reward the ideas that underpin backward attitudes, whether they be racist, misogynistic or LGBTQ+phobic. 

Marxism understands that the most fundamental way to challenge oppression is through a united movement of the working class to uproot their system and the rotten ideas that underpin it. The role of racism from day one has been to divide working class people into hostile camps, to prevent workers of all races from understanding their common interests. Understanding this means tearing down the racist statues, but also this racist system. As Marx one said: “Labour in white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black it is branded”. Today, the call coming from BLM activists is “All lives won’t matter until black lives matter”. We need to honour this by stepping up the revolutionary fight for a socialist future. 

Cummings affair sparks government crisis: organise to fight for workers’ control over ‘unlockdown’

Working class people have had to make endless sacrifices under lockdown. Parents have been denied entry to hospitals where their children are receiving treatment. Elderly relatives in care homes have gone unvisited for months on end. And for the vast majority of us, we don’t have the luxury of being able to drive our families out to second homes.

This cannot be said for the likes of Dominic Cummings, whose careless actions have plunged the government into crisis and fanned the flames of growing opposition to the Tory government’s response to Covid-19. A chorus of people, including senior health figures such as Dr Rinesh Parmar of the Doctor’s Association UK, have called on Cummings to resign.

This will not be helped by the comments from yesterday’s live press conference and statement – a rotten car crash of excuses that will do him and the Tories no good at all. It has now been confirmed that, rather than going into self-isolation after suspecting he and his wife had the virus, they instead chose to leave London with their 4-year old son to spend time at Cummings’ parents’ home on a wooded estate outside Durham, blatantly against the guidelines provided by his own government. This was when his wife was already showcasing clear symptoms.

After this government has spent months whipping up hysteria about ordinary people using parks for their daily exercise, Johnson has now done a 180-degree turn, saying that Cummings’ actions were ‘responsible’ and ‘legal’. Clearly it is one rule for us, and another for the super-rich and political elite!

While working people face attacks for using public transport, the likes of Cummings can lie their way through scrutiny. Indeed, the first thing noticed about his story was how contradictory it was. Who in their right mind would, after complaining of reduced eyesight, make an hour-and-a-half drive to and from Barnard Castle, in order to ‘put it to the test’? Driving with suspected eyesight problems no doubt poses a physical threat to the driver and passengers, so why would he take his son with him? If the woods that Cummings was spotted in were part of his parents’ estate, why not drive the remaining short distance back to the house for the toilet break he mentioned? Needless to say, his account of events was full of holes.

This scandal has dramatically undermined much of the remaining public faith in the Tories to protect our health. It proves once again that the Tories cannot be trusted to act in our interests – whether of our health or living standards.

We simply cannot let them get away with this. While Tory figures flout the rules, thousands of workers are being forced back to work without adequate safety measures – all in the aid of private profit. On 1 June, teachers and pupils face being forced back into unsafe classroom conditions. It will be key to support National Education Union members in their fight against unsafe school reopenings – as well as all workers taking a stand to defend health and safety.

This incident emphasises the need for working class people to fight for full democratic control over the measures needed to fight the virus and protect living standards. Most immediately, this means fighting for workers and trade unions to set the terms of returning to work and reopening schools. The trade unions nationally cannot afford to be quiet on this anymore. Workplace committees must be formed by all key workers to make these decisions. There can be no trust in the Tories – let’s send that message to them!

NUS Conference goes online: Organise to rebuild the student movement

This year’s National Union of Students conference has taken place under exceptional circumstances. Due to the ongoing escalation of the Covid-19, plans for it to take place in Liverpool between 31 March-3 April were shelved, instead opting for a two-day online arrangement.

Of course, this was necessary. But it must be noted that the way this was done shows a lack of internal democracy inside the NUS. Many delegates were disappointed to find out that, rather than taking place over an online conference app like Zoom, the conference had been designed so that little to no actual democratic discussion could take place. Delegates were given the right to elect national officers after watching a series of pre-recorded videos on Youtube. Shockingly, ‘attendees’ were simply told to get together with friends to host their own debates online!

This was also seen in how policy proposals were handled. Many proposals from the NUS leadership, for instance that online exams for undergraduate students and an extension of study for postgraduate students were correct. This is a small step that would nevertheless go towards addressing the disadvantages faced by working-class, disabled and international students, many of whom would be incapable of sitting their exams from home. But this would also have to be twinned with a campaign to end marketisation and for a joint struggle of students and workers for democratic control of Higher Education. This stage-managed ‘conference’ allowed for no such discussion to be had.

Effect of last year’s reforms

For the last decade, union democracy in the NUS has come under assault from numerous right-wing leaderships. But the most drastic attack so far took place at last year’s conference, where at the last minute, the NUS officialdom announced that the union was facing a £3 million financial deficit. In response, they put forward a ‘reform motion’ which represents a step towards the further hollowing-out of the NUS’ democratic structures. It proposed to sack 54 members of staff, reduce the 20 elected national positions to just 13, along with scrapping the elected ‘Block of 15’ (NEC).

Supporters of Socialist Alternative at last year’s conference strongly opposed these measures, speaking and voting against them. We recognised the results it would have for student participation in the following years. Unfortunately, since passing, this year’s event proved us correct.

“Reconnecting and healing”

It is ironic that, during this conference, the NUS’ presidential team issued a statement calling for a process of “reconnecting and healing”, addressing the issue of “membership dissatisfaction”. It is certainly true that there is widespread dissatisfaction from students towards the NUS. This is reflected in the last few years seeing a spate of disaffiliation from local Students’ Unions from the national body.

Disappointingly as well, almost all of this year’s candidates for national presidential positions, with the exception of the left candidate for VP HE Maisie Sanders, have had little-to-nothing to say about the need for student-worker solidarity in the aftermath of the latest round of heroic UCU strikes, linking this to the need to decisively end marketisation with a fighting student movement, linked up nationally and democratically organised. Beyond a few token gestures and tweets, there has been zero presence from the NUS nationally on the ground. No initiative was taken to direct Students’ Unions towards organising a student presence on the UCU picket lines. No effort was made to educate students about the need to show solidarity with staff and boycott scab lectures that undermined the strike. The NUS could have used its resources and standing to organise regional and national demonstrations with the UCU. It was unfortunate that, aside from a last-minute hastily announced demonstration (cancelled due to Covid-19), no push was made.

This gets to the heart of the question of why students feel more disconnected from the NUS then ever. It is not because students simply ‘don’t care’ about the political issues that affect them. Responsibility for this lies entirely on the doorstep of the leadership, which for the most part has seen itself as leaders not of a union, but a lobbying group that holds talks with the Tory government behind closed doors. This has meant that the last decade of attacks on students, from the introduction of tuition fees to spiralling rent costs have gone virtually unchallenged from the leadership. It is no surprise then that most students see the NUS as offering nothing more than a discount card to use at Costa.

Where now for the movement?

Our first demand should be that, as soon as possible, taking into account the health and safety of delegates and officers, an emergency conference should be called once social distancing rules are relaxed, to facilitate genuine discussion on how the student movement can coordinate a serious response to the Tories’ lacklustre response to the Coronavirus crisis. Many will be left penniless by this crisis. Students have been forced to continue paying to landlords and letting agencies who have refused to cancel rents for the duration of the crisis. Students working on insecure and zero-hours contracts will be left without a lifeline while their fees are still demanded.

These are issues the NUS must lead struggles on as soon as possible. But if they continue to show that they are not up to this, we must organise ourselves to rebuild a genuine, fighting student movement in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

It will still be possible, despite the lockdown and social distancing rules, to organise online meetings of student activists seeking to keep our movement alive and prepared for struggle. Mass climate assemblies should be called, gathering climate strikers, trade unionists and all those who want to ensure that a new wave of struggle for the climate against the big 100 polluters is mounted as soon as possible.

Online activist meetings should be gathered to discuss the next steps in discussing the fight against rip off rents and free education. Already existing strike support networks on campus should stay together and use this time to coordinate with groups on other campuses for a plan of action as soon as possible. Socialist Alternative will do all it can to be part of this process of rebuilding a fighting student movement that genuinely addresses the needs of students, staff and young workers alike.

Covid-19 lockdown: What do socialists say?

After weeks of inaction, Boris Johnson has finally given up his ‘herd immunity strategy’, issuing his call for a nationwide lockdown in response to the escalating COVID-19 outbreak. This represents a dramatic shift, forced on Johnson by the dramatic escalation of the crisis. But it should be remembered that it was only just over a week ago that his chief advisor Dominic Cummings is alleged to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it”.

Under these latest measures, gatherings of more than two people will be banned. People will be granted the right to leave their homes only in case of work, for essential supplies, to aid vulnerable people or for one round of exercise. A review for possible scaling down of the measures will take place on April 13. Though already speculation about the prospect of even tougher measures being introduced is rife.

Measures like these will understandably be seen as necessary by many. Although there have been 3,000 registered cases of COVID-19 infection in the UK, the real number is certainly much higher. It is thus no surprise that the overwhelming majority of working-class people have taken the need to slow the spread of the virus extremely seriously and remained indoors where possible.

Socialist Alternative agrees that measures are needed to halt the further spread of the Coronavirus. But this does not mean letting the government off the hook. It should be pointed out that it has been, in the main, the failure of the government to act in a clear way, not the fault of ordinary people, which has allowed this crisis to spiral more and more out of control. The catastrophic failure of the government, and the big business interests which it defends, to provide widespread free testing, effective masks for health other vulnerable workers or sufficient quantities of essential healthcare supplies including personal protective equipment and ventilators have caused far more damage and continue to do so. Many workers continue to be forced to work in non-essential workplaces meaning they have the potential to unwillingly act to spread the virus.

The truth is we can’t trust those who bear most responsibility for this crisis to be the ones to get us out of it. We can’t trust Johnson, whose strategy just weeks ago was to willingly let thousands get sick and die, to act with the best interests of working-class people at heart. It should not be Johnson and the Tories, but workers – especially those most on the front line in dealing with this crisis – who get to democratically decide on what measures are needed and for how long.

But a lockdown organised by the Johnson government and enforced by the capitalist state could have serious implications for democratic rights, such as the ability for workers to fight back against the effects of the economic crisis this has triggered – or to fight for basic health and safety in a context of employers continuing to prioritise profit over workers staying home to stem the spread. This is particularly worrying as there is no end time currently given for these new powers. Police will be given the immediate right to disperse gatherings, adopting a widened use of surveillance technology to oversee the measures.

Although the underfunding and understaffing of police over the last decade will make this difficult to fully enforce some of these new regulations, this is still something that should concern the labour movement, especially when workers move to take action. Any measure used to strengthen state forces, even under the pretext of stopping the virus, could potentially also be used against the workers’ movement if the government fears a backlash. Such a ‘backlash’, were it to develop, would almost certainly be based around demands for people to be put before profit – including fighting for an end to the cuts and privatisation that have ravaged our health service and left it unprepared for emergencies like this.

Chaos on the underground

In last night’s statement, Johnson said that “the time has come for us all to do more”. This is all well and good, and we agree that people should all make an effort to do their bit. But how exactly can we trust a party that, for the last four decades, has overseen the wholesale privatisation of our railways, and cuts to London underground services – many of which were forced through by Johnson himself as Mayor of London – along with the gradual dismantling of our NHS. This will contribute massively to the overall death toll of the virus.

This reality was seen most nakedly in photos unearthed of people, forced to travel to work, crammed onto the London Underground today. Since the mid-90s, crowding on the railways has intensified year-on-year, as the companies have routinely failed to build extra carriages while passenger numbers increase. This rail rip-off has always threatened our health, but never more so than now!

Many workers will also be receiving mixed signals from the government and employers. Even with the lockdown underway, many companies hiring non-essential workers have forced their staff to continue attending work. One example, Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley, eventually backed down from his decision to order staff into work after a public outcry at this reckless behaviour.

We cannot trust profit hungry bosses to decide what is essential or not. For them, making money is the only essential thing! Trade unions should discuss democratically and decide whether work needs to go ahead, organising the necessary action to defend workers who are forced to work in unsafe conditions, or to fight for full pay for those who are not working.

Many workers who can’t survive on the £94/week Statutory Sick Pay will be forced to continue work – particularly those in self-employment. Blame for overcrowding on public transport rests entirely on the feet of the government and employers who, by denying the right to full sick pay for all workers, will be responsible for a huge inflation of the numbers infected and dead over the next period.

This demonstrates the inability of capitalism to coordinate a serious response to the COVID-19 crisis. Any system based on the hoarded ownership of wealth and production for profit will lead towards chaos in times of emergency like this.We need to organise now to make sure the working class is not forced to pay yet again for this crisis, and to fight for a socialist world where the needs of the majority are prioritised, instead of the profits of a few.

What we call for

  • Workers’ control over any and all measures implemented to limit physical contact. Decisions on what jobs and services are deemed ‘essential’ should be decided by elected committees of trade unionists and community representatives.
  • A bail out for working people, not the mega-rich. Nationalise the banks and pharmaceutical industry, along with energy, telecommunications and major companies under democratic workers’ control. Establish a socialist plan for the mass production of ventilators, testing kits and hand sanitiser, free at the point of use. No profits should be made from this crisis!
  • Personal Protective Equipment to be provided to all essential workers, particularly in the NHS. Scrap zero-hours contracts and end outsourcing.
  • Defence of our democratic rights. For workers’ and community control over the police service, with ultimate say over hiring and firing.

Channel 4 Climate Debate: Time for a socialist Green New Deal

29 November saw a new round of protests as part of the global #YouthStrike4Climate movement, with hundreds of thousands of school and college students taking action. This year has seen the issue of the climate being catapulted to the centre of discussion. People’s awareness of how severe this crisis is has grown rapidly.

On November 28, the first general election leader’s debate to be devoted solely to the climate crisis was broadcast on channel four.

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson was a no-show. Appropriately, in his place was a melting ice statue, which generated fury at Tory HQ. In response the Tories took to the press to attack Channel 4 producers for supposedly breaching their ‘impartiality’. But the statue acted as an urgent reminder of how little concern for the future of our planet they have.

Although Boris’s no-show will further damage his credibility among many, he would have come out much worse had he shown up. The Tory strategy so far has been to shield Johnson from public view and to avoid opportunities for his record to be scrutinised. When he makes a rare appearance, his aim is to doggedly repeat the script on ‘getting Brexit done’.

Should Johnson have appeared in this climate debate the outcome would have been a complete embarrassment. Not only would his consistent record of voting against meagre environmental protections in parliament have been brought to light, but the role played by fracking lobbyist Rachel Wolf in the drafting of his manifesto would have also been highlighted. It’s unsurprising that with authors like that, the document offers no way forward for addressing the climate emergency.

This gave Corbyn a great opportunity to show which side Boris really stands on. As he tweeted to him in the morning:

If I was being funded by the big polluters, I wouldn’t want to take part in the climate debate either”.

Empty phrases and ‘green’ austerity

Given the subject, this debate was clearly going to be seen by the Green Party as a key opportunity to have their voices heard. However, beyond stating that they were the party to talk about the climate ‘before anyone else’, they actually had very little to offer in terms of policies that would benefit working people.

In reality, the Greens have not been the ones to force the issue of climate change onto the political agenda. It was the millions of youth in Britain and elsewhere bravely entering into struggle and staging their walkouts that did so.

It was, however, quite clear from Green Party leader Sian Berry’s performance that the party has begun to feel the pressure of this year of radicalisation around the climate. On a number of occasions, she made a call for a ‘Green New Deal’, echoing the language of the self-described democratic socialist US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). In spite of this, the Greens’ policies fall short of those set out by both AOC and Corbyn.

A key idea put forward in AOC’s proposed Green New Deal is that, by taking measures such as taxing the rich and investing in green jobs, a left government would be able to connect tackling the effects of runaway climate change with ending austerity and providing a decent future for working people. It’s vital that ordinary people are not the ones picking up the tab for a crisis created by the mega-rich elite.

Central to the Green Party’s policies, however, is the call for a ‘carbon tax’. Socialists oppose taxes which fail to take account of a person’s ability to pay. In practice, the Green Party’s proposed carbon tax would mean a tax on the day-to-day lives of working-class people while not actually addressing the root cause of climate catastrophe. By attaching blame to the spending habits of individual consumers, a carbon tax would fail to deliver on decarbonisation, while letting the big polluting companies off the hook.

Even less impressive was the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson. After a car-crash performance on Question Time, she has fallen completely flat. Swinson’s approach was to, yet again, steer all of the issues back to Brexit, peddling the false idea that if a Lib Dem government were to cancel Brexit, this would provide the only safe road towards decarbonisation.

Of course, a Tory Brexit would likely compound the disaster facing our environment, with Johnson happy to make a bonfire out of the limited existing protection laws. We would have to mobilise in our schools, workplaces and trade unions to fight this and to demand the change that’s needed to protect our environment.

But the future of the planet does not hinge on remaining in the capitalist EU – which itself has a tawdry record on environmental issues. Ultimately, it hinges on whether or not we have an economy that is rigged around the interests of an exploiting and polluting capitalist elite, which destroys the planet in its quest for higher profits.

Vote Corbyn – for a Socialist Green New Deal

In contrast to the meaningless platitudes of other parties present, Corbyn’s policies managed to expose the rotten role that big business has played in threatening the future of the planet. He stated the fact that just 100 giant corporations have been responsible for 70% of CO2 emissions since the late 1980s.

While other party leaders bragged about driving their electric cars, Corbyn threw out some of his best and boldest anti-austerity policies. This involved public ownership of the national grid, water companies, along with the supply arms of the ‘big six’ energy giants, while taxing the oil companies to contribute to a £250bn “Green Transformation Fund”. This would make up a “Green Industrial Revolution”, where new policies of public investment would allow for the creation of a million climate jobs in onshore and offshore wind, housing upgrades and electric car production, along with 800,000 apprenticeships.

All of this points in the right direction – of targeting the profits of the capitalist class to invest in a green future. Socialist Alternative has been mobilising and campaigning across the country to deliver a Corbyn-led Labour government. However, there remain some serious limitations to Labour’s manifesto that must be discussed by all those involved in the movement.

During the debate, Corbyn made correct points about the need for a massive expansion of rail networks in Britain and elsewhere. This would be achievable through the nationalisation of the railways. But Corbyn’s current plan is to simply purchase the rail companies at their ‘market value’ once their contracts end.

This means that nationalisation would not be completed until 2030, limiting in terms of speed and scope the plans for the mass expansion of transport that’s needed. What’s more this approach means ripping off the public by paying off the rail bosses whose profits have already been subsidised by taxpayers and commuters for decades.

Instead, a Corbyn-led government should take the rail companies out of private hands and fully nationalise them immediately. Compensation should only be paid on the basis of proven need, for example to smaller shareholders. The owners of the giant rail companies, who have made their profits from bleeding our public services dry should not receive a further penny. To win policies like this, it will be necessary to mobilise workers and youth everywhere, ensuring that these industries could be managed under democratic control and management. In this way, it would be possible to plan the economy in order to meet the needs of working-class people, without destroying the planet.

Corbyn’s manifesto has also watered down some of the policies passed at the recent Labour conference. Instead of adopting the conference’s call for decarbonisation by 2030, Corbyn has only come out in favour of ‘majority’ decarbonisation. It would be entirely possible for a Corbyn government to pledge and deliver on complete decarbonisation by that date. But it would require it to move beyond its list of radical reforms, and instead challenge the existence of the capitalist system as a whole.

What is needed is a socialist Green New Deal, where not only the energy, water and rail companies would be taken into democratic public ownership, but all of the major banks and corporations that dominate the economy. By breaking with this rotten market system, we would be taking the steps necessary to plan for a decent and sustainable future.

Just last month in London, Extinction Rebellion unveiled a banner that read “Climate Struggle = Class Struggle”. This is absolutely correct. Now we must vote for a Corbyn-led Labour government on 12 December, while building a movement that links up strikes of workers and youth. In order to succeed, such a movement would need to be organised around socialist ideas – to finally smash the capitalists’ control over our economy and planet.

People protesting holding green signs

Capitalism and the Climate Emergency: What sort of Green New Deal do we need?

The scientific consensus is clear on the likelihood of an impending climate catastrophe. Specialists agree that a global average temperature of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would mark a tipping point. It would trigger an avalanche of immediate effects – melting ice caps leading to rising sea levels, exposing low-altitude cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai to mass flooding and destruction. Fertile land would be devastated, posing the possibility of mass famines in the neocolonial world, which would open a new phase in the global refugee crisis.

In many ways, it is misleading to describe it as a ‘climate crisis’. It is much more than that – it is a crisis of civilisation. Scientists have increasingly referred to our time as the “Anthropocene” – a new stage in the history of Earth’s existence, characterised by ‘human-made’ climate change, posing the possibility of extinction if we don´t take drastic action immediately. We have lived on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, while capitalism has existed for only a few hundred. It has been the actions of the exploiting class that has done the real damage.

The climate catastrophe is having a hugely politicising effect, ultimately taking a number of forms. The new Fridays for Future movement, kickstarted and spearheaded by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, has had a tremendous effect. On the 20 September, for the ‘Earth Strike’, around 4 million young people, students and workers staged a global walkout to expose the inaction of world governments in response to the crisis.

Extinction Rebellion’s strategy of using direct action methods to paralyse urban areas has forced the climate to the front of the agenda, pushing parliament to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in May of this year. In spite of increased police repression on their recent ‘October Rebellion’, they have organised mass road blockages and airport occupations, calling on the trade unions for a workers’ day of action on October 12. The ‘rebels’ have exposed the silence of big business politicians and media over the impending catastrophe.

In the US, self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has popularised the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’. While just a few years ago climate change was treated as a secondary issue by Republican and Democrat politicians, AOC’s proposal that a 70% tax rate on millionaires and billionaires could fund well-paid, unionised green jobs has thrust the climate to the centre of political gravity. 64% of US millennials now support the idea of a GND.

The GND’s popularity is fundamentally based on a rejection of the ideas pushed by capitalist politicians – namely that tackling climate change can be reduced to modifying the individual spending habits of consumers, often promoting lifestyle changes that are simply unattainable to most working-class people. The politics of guilt touted by the proponents of ‘green capitalism’ has been rejected by many, in favour of targeting the rich, to make them pay up to address a crisis that they have created.

An equally positive aspect of the GND is how it envisions a radical program that, by eating into the profits of the ruling class, could tackle both the climate crisis and poor living standards among working-class people. AOC sees neoliberal austerity as something that could be tackled alongside the climate catastrophe. This is a hugely promising development that Marxists cannot stand aside from. This is why in the US, Socialist Alternative (sister organisation of SA in England, Wales and Scotland) has been battling Amazon’s rule over Seattle, as part of Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s fight to be re-elected to the City Council under the banner of a “Green New Deal for working people”.

Capitalism is the culprit

The scale of the crisis has forced many young people on the #YouthStrikes to draw increasingly radical conclusions. It is no coincidence, for example, that the dominant slogan emerging out of the strikes across the world has been ‘system change not climate change’. While not all have fully drawn socialist conclusions, anti-capitalist ideas remain extremely popular. Many youth strikers see the ruthless and uncaring nature of the capitalist system as the fundamental driving force of runaway climate change. The fact that just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions is widely known and cited among the youth.

These ideas did not come from nowhere. Young people have been left with no option but to draw these conclusions – the inaction of capitalist governments around the world make it obvious. Take the criminal irresponsibility of Bolsonaro’s reactionary government of big business in Brazil, which has granted unprecedented access for corporations to the Amazon rainforest, while wildfires have increased 84% on from last year. Many were outraged when Trump announced his plan to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement; he has ruled out re-joining the Agreement if he wins a second term in 2020. Trump remains in the pocket of the major oil corporations – Exxon, Chevron and BP all donated around $500,000 each to his presidential campaign in 2016.

Equally guilty are all the governments who pay lip service to the need for climate action, but still defend capitalist profits above all. At the September UN Climate Summit, 70 states committed to a goal of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. But we can’t let ourselves be deceived by this. The ‘net-zero by 2050’ target is grossly inadequate. A widely publicized report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimated that at current rates, we will reach temperatures of 1.5°C by 2040. But the reality is that it would most likely be even sooner than that. Even if the 2050 net-zero target was enough to prevent runaway effects, our governments would still be drastically falling short. All scientific reports show the UK government failing to meet its climate target by a long margin. 79.4% of the UK’s energy is still derived from the use of fossil fuels. This is a trend replicated on a global scale. The ten biggest polluting countries in the world emitted roughly 27.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017, and only one (India) has come anywhere near to meeting its Paris Agreement targets.

The pledges of the sort laid out in Paris are designed to pay homage to the crisis, while member states are not compelled by any binding targets that would push them into confrontation with the major fossil fuel giants. World capitalism can play at looking ecological, while it continues to rapidly undermine the health of the world’s ecosystem.

Labour Party Conference

This radical awakening on the issue of the climate has taken place across many sections of society. The recent Labour Party Conference, for example, saw a grass-roots effort across 128 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) for a motion committing Labour to a Green New Deal. It called for co-operation with specialists and trade unions to work towards a goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. There were further proposals for taxation of the rich, a ban on fracking, along with a program of mass public investment to build high-speed electrified railways. A separate motion had been submitted, calling for a “Socialist Green New Deal”, with the support of the Bakers Union and Fire Brigades Union. This proposed the additional nationalisation of banking and the financial sector, “empowering workers to take action over political and social issues including climate change”. It is very significant that the final motion was overwhelmingly supported, with the added backing of the CWU and TSSA, along with prominent names in Unite and Unison.

It is unsurprising that the FBU gave its endorsement. Intimately tied up with the climate emergency is the global spike in wildfires, which most notably affected Saddleworth Moor, burning 39,537 acres of UK land. The climate emergency is an emergency for those working in the fire service, along with workers in general.

The call for Corbyn to place a GND at the centre of his next election campaign came from what took shape as a rank-and-file revolt. This was seen most vividly when protests held by Labour activists led to the cancellation of a fringe event hosted by fossil fuel giant BP. This upsurge must have a lasting impact on Labour’s climate change policy. It will need a mass movement to start to implement the policies agreed by Labour conference, even if Labour is in power and Corbyn in Number 10. All CLPs should now pass motions, noting the result of the GND vote and keeping on the pressure for Labour to adopt a socialist GND policy.

Democratic planning

The push for Corbyn to adopt a radical environmental policy has largely been the work of the ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ (LGND) group. Emerging out of circles linked with the Momentum left, the group has many positive proposals to make. In an online policy paper, titled A just transition to well-paid, unionised, green jobs, they make the case for a ‘just transition’ that would have to be “fundamentally worker-led”.

Equally worthy of support is LGND’s proposals for a break from a neo-liberal model, to nationalise the energy and water companies, for instance. They have called for a program of mass investment in democratically-run public transport, and for it to be expanded beyond the skeletal service provided to people today. We would equally support their call for the scrapping of Thatcher’s anti-union laws.

As LGND’s website puts it, they “envision a prosperous, socialist, zero-carbon society as the alternative to our current world ridden with political economic and ecological crises”. We would mirror these words completely. But their current program, if adopted by a Corbyn government, would still ultimately leave capitalism intact. Another policy paper of theirs, entitled Expanding public, democratic ownership makes this clear. They make many correct statements, for instance that “The prevailing neo-liberal ideologies of private ownership, value extraction and profit maximisation form the root of the crises we face of climate change, economic inequality, housing, biodiversity, and international and intergenerational inequity”. But it proposes policies that would only superficially break from the mould of big business politics.

The same is the case with the ideas coming from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has floated the idea that nationalising the national grid in of itself would be enough for a Labour government to oversee a program of rapid decarbonisation. An issue to consider, however, is the scale of the task involved. To transition to zero or net-zero by 2030, while reskilling the relevant sectors of the workforce for green jobs would take a gigantic level of planning that the capitalist system could never deliver on. The financing of such a huge task would inevitably put a strain on the pockets of the mega-rich, hitting the profits of some of the most powerful and polluting companies in energy, finance and land. These companies dominate capitalism as a whole and their bosses will fight any serious attempts at the kind of planning necessary for full decarbonisation. This was made very clear in a recent issue of the Financial Times (24 September), which quoted an unnamed representative of the Confederation of British Industry, who declared that big business saw “no credible pathway” to decarbonisation by 2030.

While the ruling class cheers on the vague idea of ‘net-zero by 2050’, it rejects any radical program that would let us decarbonise before the tipping point of 1.5°C is reached. The fact that they dismiss this as ‘unrealistic’ (unprofitable) says a lot about how the capitalist economy functions. This stage in world history is one where the capitalists of each country act in constant fear of being outcompeted by rival profit-seekers. This leads the ruling class to push the state to act in their interests, not those of people and the planet. So it would not be enough for a Labour government to simply stick to the goal of reforming capitalism.

Any government that took the radical steps outlined by LGND would have to accompany it with a wider program of public ownership. This could guarantee a high level of investment in green, free and accessible public transport, replacing the widespread reliance on personal vehicles, along with the building of ecological council houses. This could only be achieved as part of a wider democratic socialist plan, which would use the world’s resources in a rational and sustainable way.

Socialist Alternative is a democratic, revolutionary socialist organisation. We are made up of youth, working people and students, fighting in our unions, communities, workplaces and campuses to build action necessary to bring down the Tories and the fossil fuel giants. Join us today!

What we stand for

A socialist government to bring the automotive, shipbuilding, aerospace and agricultural and food industries, along with the banks and major corporations, into democratic public ownership. Compensation to be paid out only on the basis of proven need. Nothing for the big capitalists.

A research and development plan, with full trade union and worker involvement, to oversee a reduction in polluting / emitting industries, in order to maintain skill levels and re-deploy workers into useful and well-paid employment

A massive program of public works to oversee the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and to remediate damage to the environment. For a plan to rewild and reforest green space through the nationalisation of land, removing control from the major landlords and land-owning companies.

For publicly-owned industries to be managed democratically, forming elected bodies of workers, consumers and trade unions in each sector. For a plan of sustainable agriculture to be drawn up by committees of farm workers, small farmers and elected specialists.

Capitalism is an international system. For a global fightback of workers and youth against this system which means ecological destruction, exploitation and oppression. For world socialist revolution to save the planet!

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