Tuesday, 3 June 2008

There Is An Alternative

To its credit, the conference provided a rare opportunity for a good number of concerned people – mostly politically active already - to raise a broad range of different ideas and proposals in response to the rapidly escalating crisis. Many, but far from all, saw the urgent need to end corporate power and establish 21st century models of social ownership. Some were for a return to Keynesian economics looking for ways to get the economy back in control through improved systems of regulation.

But it seems that ordinary people understand the immediacy of the global economic crisis of capitalism better than many political activists because working people are struggling every day with rising prices for food, shocked every time they fill up with a tank of petrol or heating oil, with mounting debts, lower wages and redundancies. Evidence is mounting of a new imminent implosion in the financial system, beginning with the biggest US mortgage lender Countrywide, that will reverberate throughout the world, whilst in the UK, Bradford & Bingley heads the sick list. Its effects could be many times greater then the 2007 credit crunch which broke the property market leaving millions here and abroad facing repossession. The coincidence of all these facts of daily existence with a mounting political crisis in Britain adds up to an even greater test for political campaigners.

It can seem difficult to identify immediate “practical” solutions to recession plus inflation, especially when the market state and client governments like New Labour have neither the capacity nor the political will to intervene. Any action they take in one area makes things worse elsewhere. Providing tax breaks for North Sea oil producers, for example, can only deepen the ecological crisis. The environmentalist Jonathon Porritt summed it up pretty well in his blog earlier this month. “So, food security is back on the political agenda. Climate change is omni-present. Peak Oil is rising. The credit crunch is the new player on the block. Resource wars are looming. Rainforest destruction just won’t go away. Species loss is as bad as ever, but no one cares – for now. Water shortages are chronic. But much, much more worrying are the linkages between all these notionally ‘separate’ phenomena. The synergies, feedback loops, interdependencies. At long last, people are starting to make the connections – and are even beginning to link all those separate symptoms back to their root cause: today’s literally insane notion of getting richer by trashing the planet and screwing the poor.”

We’re in a period of history in which no amount of tinkering can solve the big questions. So we’re obliged to work on the development of ideas that link to immediate problems but raise the spectre of radical socialist transformation.

For example, on the energy crisis, the case for social ownership of power generating and oil corporations increases daily. This essential resource should not be left in private hands or market forces. In the interim, the state could slash prices and subsidise energy through the scrapping of Trident and foreign wars. To save energy, public transport fares could be reduced drastically and services reorganised so that people could get to and from work without using their cars. Rail and bus networks would then be taken back into public ownership.

Food prices could be frozen and steps taken towards bringing the supermarket chains into co-operative ownership, ending their profiteering at consumers’ expense. People threatened with repossession should be allowed to stay in their homes pending plans to convert everyone’s mortgage debt into something more affordable and less of a long-term burden. Speculating in commodities and currencies should be blocked and a programme of turning private sector finance into mutual, co-operatively owned enterprises launched.

The big question of questions looms: Who on earth is going to implement such a programme? New Labour? You can’t be serious. The Tories or Lib Dems? To ask the question is to answer it. The apparent political impasse only poses in a sharper way the spectre already mentioned, that of a break with the capitalist present and a leap into a socialist future. It’s difficult to conceive of but it’s an eminently practical solution given the prevailing view that There is No Alternative. The real challenge out of the Leap conference is to create the leadership and organization needed to bring such policies to fruition. The urgency of achieving this cannot be overstated.

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