Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Saving Public Water & defending democracy in Canterbury

Environment Canterbury’s (Canterbury Regional Council) elected councillors are getting the sack, to be replaced by a Government appointed commissioner.

This anti-democratic move will save supporters of industrial dairying from humiliation at October’s local elections, and allow industry and government to get on with their goal of polluting and privatising Canterbury’s water.

The Water Forum has called a public meeting to bring together water campaigners to discuss the next step.

Saving Public Water
Saturday April 10
4 to 6 pm
WEA, 59 Glouchester St

Video: Wellington public meeting on the Nepal revolution

There’s a revolution going on, but most New Zealanders – including most activists – haven’t heard of it.

That’s why the current national speaking tour by Australian socialist Ben Peterson is important.

Ben has been talking about the unfolding revolution in Nepal. Last year, he spent four months in the country with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

“It’s so hard to get good information about what’s going on”, says Ben. “That’s why I decided to go there myself”.

The national tour was jointly organized by the Workers Party, Socialist Worker (publishers of UNITYblog) and the International Socialist Organisation.

The third meeting of the tour drew over 20 people to the Newtown Community Centre in Wellington. Ben explained some of the history of Nepal and its oppressive monarchy, before focusing on the development of the Maoist revolutionary movement.

“They launched a People’s War On February 13, 1996. It wasn’t a meaningful insurgency initially, but the Maoist movement started to gain popular support.

“They would take up people’s day to day demands, the rights of women, people of low caste, of national groups to be taught in their native language. They would redistribute land to people without it and force corrupt police, or money-lenders, out of the village.

“In 2001, the Maoist Party adopted the Prachanda Path, getting away from some of the more dogmatic beginnings and started to look to the cities for people to get involved in a broad democratic movement against the King.

“In 2002, King Gyanendra dismissed Parliament and took all power back under his personal control. In 2006, the Jana Andolan 2 (the Second People’s Movement) started as a call for a general strike. The King declared ‘shoot on sight’ notices for protesters. He was forced to back down.

“Under popular pressure, led by the Maoists, elections to the Constituent Assembly were finally decreed in 2008. The Maoists won 40 percent of the seats. The Royalist parties got less than half a dozen seats. It was a vindication of the revolution.

“As part of the peace agreement, it was agreed that the old Royalist military and the Maoist Peoples Liberation Army would be integrated into a new army around a new constitution drafted by the people.

“After repeated insubordination, the Maoists dismissed the head of the army. Then the right wing parties used the president to reinstate him unconstitutionally. The Maoists resigned from the government.

“The whole time this process has been happening, the real fundamental change has been happening at the grassroots level. I spent two weeks with the Peoples Liberation Army. There’s a lot of frustration. They wanted to be out doing meaningful development tasks.

“The biggest changes in Nepal are the social changes. The fact that a dalit (someone from a low caste family) can marry someone from a different ethnic group would not even have been close to a realistic possibility a few years ago. The gender roles have been challenged, too.

“The Maoists are a listed terrorist organisation in the US. From the mainstream political parties, there are accusations that there is supposedly a culture of fear in the countryside. Those claims of oppression are hollow.

“In the villages of Rolpa, road building was organized by the Maoists and made by their activists and the local community. The police and military arrested people for working on the road, and some were shot. That shows how oppressive the police and military are.

“Since 2006, the Maoists have been able to operate overground. They’ve been able to play a role in trade union organizing, building up democratic, rank-and-file unionism.

“The thing that’s exciting, that makes it a revolution, is that the people of Nepal have the absolute knowledge that they have the power to change the way their society operates. That is what I saw when I was in Nepal.”

The discussions and questions from the floor that made up the last part of the meeting focused on the current balance of power in the country, the tactics and alliances that the Maoists have pursued, the role of Western NGOs and aid agencies operating in Nepal and the Maoist approach to the peace process.

You can watch full video footage of Ben’s talk below.

Monday, 29 March 2010

US health reform: A cause for celebration?

Alan Maass examines the claims made about the Barak Obama’s health care legislation.
From US Socialist Worker

Barack Obama signs health care legislation in front of Democratic lawmakers in the East Room of the White House (Lawrence Jackson)

LAST SUNDAY night (March 21) around 10 p.m., I was finishing up the next day’s edition of SocialistWorker.org when my e-mail inbox started filling up like a casino slot machine finally paying off.

The subject lines all had the same theme: “Historic legislation...” “Monumental effort...” “Accomplishment on a scale with Social Security...” “Salute this landmark achievement...”

The House had finally voted in favor of health care legislation, passed by the Senate and supported by the White House, and now liberal organizations were celebrating a long-delayed triumph on the issue that dominated the first year of the Obama presidency. Every pro-Democratic and progressive list-serve I’m on came alive.


Barack Obama e-mailed to thank me for my tireless efforts and for not listening to the people who said it couldn’t be done. His adviser David Plouffe even invited me to co-sign “this historic legislation.” On the BarackObama.com Web site, though—not actually in the East Room of the White House.

The enthusiasm extended beyond elected officials. “The health care reform bill passed by Congress and signed into law today by President Barack Obama is progressive reform at its finest—conceptually farsighted in design and pragmatically far reaching in scope,” wrote John Podesta of the liberal Center for American Progress.

Also weighing in were groups and figures who previously had criticized the legislation—people who protested the exclusion of voices advocating single-payer health care from the discussion; who warned that a bill without at least a strong “public option” for the uninsured was a disaster in the making; who opposed the so-called “Cadillac tax” on employer-provided insurance plans with halfway decent coverage.

One surprise came from Michael Moore, director of the excellent documentary Sicko about the health care crisis in the U.S. and a bitter opponent of both Republican smears of reform and Democratic concessions to the health care industry.

Michael Moore says US Healthcare Bill ‘A Victory for Capitalism’

 This is a long interview by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and Sharif Abdel Kouddous with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore.

In the first half Moore talks about he thing’s Obama’s healthcare bill is ‘A Victory for Capitalism’.

It’s worth watching after the break though, because in the second half, Moore moves on to his disillusionment with Obama, while also attacking Ralph Nader (who has run several times as an anti-corporate Presidential candidate against the Republicans and Democrats).

He then goes on to outline his own “grassroots” strategy whereby left wing activists “take over” local Democrat Party branches and try to transform it into a party that will put power into the hands of working people...

I can’t even think of the best way to express how misguided that idea is, but then Moore himself wasn’t sounding too hopeful.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Ben Peterson BFM interview

Ben Peterson (pictured with hat) was interviewd by Mikey Havok on BFM’s breakfast show on Monday. Ben’s speaking tour continues with talks in Christchurch and Dunedin still to come.
See details here.

Click link below to listen:

Revolutionary movement in Nepal: Ben Peterson

Ben is a 20 year old Australian activist who lived in Nepal last year. He’s doing a speaking tour of New Zealand (March 21-26) talking about the revolutionary movement in Nepal. Ben Peterson was interviewd by Mikey Havok on BFM’s breakfast show on Monday.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

John Minto: Cut pay for politicians

by John Minto
Frontline on Stuff

“Top politicians should take a pay cut” says the headline for an article reporting on a Massey University survey which probed New Zealanders attitudes to social inequity – and it’s hard to disagree.

The research team headed by Professor Phil Gendall found that half the people surveyed thought Cabinet ministers were paid around $175,000 a year but deserved around $135,000. Those in households earning under $40,000 thought they earned $160,000 but deserved $100,000 while those in households earning over $100,000 or more thought ministers earned $170,000 but deserved $150,000.

In fact our Cabinet ministers are paid $245,000 base salary with plenty of freebies on top. This puts them earning over $100,000 more than people across a broad income range believe they are worth.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Venezuela Celebrates Women’s Day, Discusses Abortion Rights

As a late finale to our International Women’s Day coverage, here’s a story about IWD in Venezuela, plus links to more articles on women’s rights in Venezuela and Latin America.

by Tamara Pearson

Venezuela celebrated International Women’s Day [March 8] with a ceremony involving 200,000 women and some of Venezuela’s highest political female leaders. The women also formed a Bicentenary Front of Women. Meanwhile, a National Assembly committee is discussing women’s right to abortions.

Women swearing themselves into the Bicentennial Front of Women

Friday, 19 March 2010

Climate Camp hui discusses next step

North Island Climate Camp activists met in Hamilton on February 27 & 28. UNITYblog asked Gary Cranston, a member of the Auckland Climate Camp local group and editor of Without Your Walls blog, about the meeting and the way forward for the climate justice movement in Aotearoa.

How many people were at the meeting? Were they mostly people that had been at the Wellington Climate Camp?

Approximately 15 people attended the 2010 North Island Climate Camp gathering in Hamilton. Folks travelled from Wellington, Auckland, Whangarei and Hamilton and input was gathered from many other places before-hand.

Around half of those attending had been involved in organising the first Camp for Climate Action Aotearoa (CCAA), the other half were new faces who had either attended the camp and wanted to get involved, or couldn’t make it to the camp, but still wanted to get involved in Climate Justice / Climate Camp activism.  

How did people feel the Climate Camp went? How do you feel it went?

Around 50 people completed the feedback form that was sent around after Climate Camp. We spent a few hours reflecting on the camp itself and reviewed feedback sent through.

Feedback was almost all positive, with a strong sense of people having had quite powerful and positive experiences of organising horizontally, something that was quite new to many folks coming to Climate Camp for the first time, and to many folks who had never had the chance of being involved in climate campaigns / activism in such a democratic and hands on manner.

Most suggestions for change focussed on how packed the workshop schedule was and some disappointment by some regarding their inability to attend workshops that were happening parallel to one another.

Two people actually said “it was the best week of my life!”. :)  

Do people want to have another one this year?

Absolutely. Climate Camp is to be a catalyst for the emergence of a Climate Justice movement here in Aotearoa and there is strong understanding throughout those who were involved in CCAA 2009 that the post-Copenhagen climate movement requires a time and place to get its sh*t together and take action from below.

We expect to see Climate Justice come to the forefront of the Climate debate in the vacuum opened up by the predictable failure of the ‘big greens’ and the worlds so-called ‘leaders’ to tackle climate change, and most see the politics of Climate Camp becoming more relevant than ever in 2010 and the need for this movement to get together, gather strength, strategise and take action beyond 2010.

Yes, another climate camp is necessary, but only within the context of an emerging climate juctice movement, which leads us on to the next question...  

Are there Climate Camp / climate justice groups up and running anywhere?

There are currently seven towns / cities in Aotearoa that have climate camp local groups working within them, and there is talk of a mobilisation / speaking tour this year. Whether that be aimed at creating more climate camp local groups, or generally focused on helping climate justice groups and projects emerge in general is unclear at the moment but it is being looked into.

If anybody out there is keen on setting up a new Climate Camp local group, or joining an existing one, just go to the website and see how to get involved here... http://www.climatecamp.org.nz/

Hamilton was chosen as the venue for the North Island Climate Camp meeting because there has been interest from people living in Hamilton in setting setting up a Waikato region Climate Camp local group.

With increasing international awareness of the injustices and climatic inpacts of industrial agriculture and with the opening up of new deadly loopholes in the Kyoto / UN climate process regarding agriculture and climate change [the REDD mechanism and soil carbon credits] attention is now being focussed on New Zealand’s role in greenwashing its corporate dairy machine. New Zealand will host the world dairy summit in Auckland in November 2010 and it is expected that agricultural false solutions and general greenwash is being lined up well in advance.

No better place to set up a new climate camp group than the Waikato. But yes, we do expect to see more and more Climate Camps emerging this year, along with more climate juctice focused initiatives, and hope that local Climate Camp groups will be getting invloved in the setting up of and supporting of such groups across the country.

What are the local Climate Camp groups doing? What are they planning to do?

Much time was spent over the weekend on brainstorming ways that Climate Camp groups can take action at the root causes of climate change at a local level. It was recognised that the areas for action will vary from one area to another, and that this reflects the need for a multitude of responses to the climate crisis in contrast with the failed approach of international summits persuing the mirage of the silver bullet / green capitalist climate fix. So, although a plethora of areas for action were identified, it will be up to local groups to identify and take action at a local level themselves.  

What would you like to see them doing?

Who knows – I dont think it’s up to me to say what I’d like to see them doing, it’s up to each group to respond to the failure of Copenhagen and to find new ways forward that are relevant to their communities and their struggle for climate justice at a local level.

But in a broader sense, I’d like to see people taking bold steps, with conviction. Copenhagen failed because of greed, and now its up to us to sort this out. There are no short cuts around the political organising that is required to build power from below.

This is now clearer than ever and that’s what we need to do, build power from below and organise within our communities to build a powerful movement that will resist green capitalism while opening up new ways of living that put people and the planet before profit... what that looks like in your town, that’s up to you to figure out.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Interview with Ben Peterson: Eyewitness to Nepal’s revolution

Ben Peterson is a young Australian socialist who spent four and half months in Nepal last year. Ben is crossing the Tasman for a speaking tour of New Zealand from 21–26 March. Ben was kind enough to answer some questions for UNITYblog about his experiences in Nepal.

When did you go to Nepal? How long were you there for?

I was in Nepal last year from the beginning of March to July, about four and half months in total.

Why did you go to Nepal?

I went to Nepal specifically to see the social and political transformations taking place there. I’d first come into contact with the revolutionary process there in 2006, but didn’t really start to study what was happening there until 2008 when the Maoists won the Constituent Assembly elections. The more I read into what was happening there the more excited I was. But all the time it was really hard to find good and reliable sources of information, particularly from a progressive point of view. So I decided that to really get a handle of what’s happening there, I should go and see it for myself.

Where you surprised by what you experienced there?

Well, yes I was. Its one thing to read about mass struggles going on, or about a peoples’ army, basically about a revolution, but its totally another to go and actually see it,  to meet the people involved and to see this sort of process playing out in front of you. The level of popular engagement with politics, and how widespread the process was, was mind-blowing. Every little village had a union office, or a party organisation or something. It was amazing to see real revolutionary changes happening before my eyes, I couldn’t really be prepared for that, no amount of books can make you *really* understand these sort of processes until you see them.

Waihopai Ploughshares trial: the verdict is not guilty

I’m pleasantly surprised by the verdict. Commentary in the news says it doesn’t set a legal precedent, because it’s a jury verdict, not a judges ruling, nevertheless I’m sure it will inspire anti-war activists everywhere. The action, the court case and especially this verdict have also done a lot to raise awareness about the spy base and the fact that it’s part of our Government’s support for the US war machine, and nothing to do with defending grassroots people in this country.

~ David

Waihopai Ploughshares trial helped uncover secrets

Waihopai Ploughshares

17 March 2010

Adrian Leason, Father Peter Murnane and Sam Land – the three men who were charged with intentional damage and unlawful entry at Waihopai spy base – have today expressed their thanks to the jury, the judge, and the prosecution and defence lawyers.

At the conclusion of the trial, Father Peter, Sam and Adrian said they feel privileged to have helped uncover the true nature of the spy base.

“Our actions in disabling the spy base and stopping the flow of information helped save lives in Iraq”, added Adrian.

“What has been humbling for us to realise is how our witness has impacted on so many people around the world and at home”, said Sam.

“We did not try to avoid the consequences of our actions, because we respect the rule of law although we do believe we are ultimately accountable to a higher authority. We damaged property at the spy base in order to save victims of war and torture. It’s all about Jesus’ command for us to treat all people as our brothers and sisters”, said Father Peter.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Bad Banks leaflet #6: MAKE THE BANKS PAY

The latest Bad Banks leaflet is out now (leaflet #6). It features on the front a "letter" to prime minister John Key, which reads:
Dear Mr Key,

Why are you wanting to raise GST? Food and everything else will be more expensive. It's already hard to make ends meet. Why don't you tax the banks and other fat cats that have been ripping us off? We want justice Mr Key, make them pay.

Grassroots people of NZ
On the back of the leaflet, under the headline 'Make the Banks Pay' are three demands:

1. Stop forced mortgagee sales
Regulatory muscle used to stop banks turfing people out of their homes. A government body to oversee the re-negotiation of mortgages based on current market values and ability of the homeowner to pay.

2. Turn Kiwibank into a proper public bank
Offering 3% interest loans to first home buyers, zero-fee banking for people on modest incomes, and low interest loans to local bodies for sustainable eco-projects in the public good.

3. Introduce a Robin Hood Tax
(also known as a Financial Transaction Tax)
A small percentage tax on financial transactions would net billions of dollars from banks and global financial speculators. GST could be phased out.

These "common sense" measures to curb banking power and protect grassroots people should hit the mark with people who already have negative attitudes towards the banks, which is the majority of New Zealanders. Early feedback from people on the street to the new leaflet has been positive.


To go with the new leaflet, there's a 'Make the Banks Pay' sign-up sheet where people can give their support to our "letter" to John Key and the three demands.

If you would like bulk copies of Bad Banks leaflet #6 and the 'Make the Banks Pay' sign-up sheet, contact Vaughan svpl(at)xtra.co.nz or 021-0415 082.

Send all completed sign-up sheets to Socialist Worker/Bad Banks, PO Box 13-685, Auckland.


There's an online version of the 'Make the Banks Pay' sign-up. Go to http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/badbanks/ to add your signature. Tell your friends, family and workmates. We want to get as many signatures as possible, to grow the campaign and hopefully get crucial media coverage.

You can also join, and invite others to join, the 'Make the Banks Pay' Facebook group. Go to http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=392390694275&ref=ts


There's going to be a lot of media coverage either side of the upcoming budget (20 May) about an almost certain hike in GST, as well as other policies the National government will be implementing in response to the global economic crisis. It's possible that the alternative message of the Bad Banks campaign: "make the banks pay, not grassroots people", could break through into the media. That possibility will be increased if we can build some campaign momentum on the ground and online over the next couple of months.

If we work hard we may be able to lift the Bad Banks campaign to the next level. The three "common sense" measures are necessary to curb banking power and protect grassroots people in New Zealand. If we act together we just might be able to deliver a blow to the banks.

In solidarity,

Vaughan Gunson
Bad Banks campaign manager
021-0415 082

Monday, 15 March 2010

ANZ wins Roger Award 2009

by Murray Horton

The full Judges’ Report is available at www.cafca.org.nz, follow the Roger Award links from the Homepage.

Finalists: ANZ, BNZ, Infratil, Newmont, Rio Tinto Aluminium NZ, Rymans, Telecom, Transpacific and Westpac. There were two finalists for the Accomplice Award – the Business Round Table, and the Auckland City Council and its officials (as part of the nomination of Transpacific Industries).

Criteria: the transnational (a corporation which is 25% or more foreign-owned) which is worst in each or all of the following:  Economic Dominance - Monopoly, profiteering, tax dodging, cultural imperialism. People - Unemployment, impact on tangata whenua, women, children, abuse of workers/conditions, health and safety of workers and the public, cultural imperialism. Environment - Environmental damage, abuse of animals. Political interference - Cultural imperialism, running an ideological crusade. 

Trans-Pacific Partnership: NZ jumping onto a sinking ship

by Murray Horton

Talks started in Melbourne today for the US, Australia, Peru and Vietnam to join an expanded Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP, currently comprising NZ, Chile, Brunei, and Singapore, known as the P4 Agreement), with November 2011, when the US hosts APEC, as the target to seal the deal. This will be used as the backdoor means to secure a US/NZ Free Trade Agreement. Already the Americans have said that they see this as more than a mere free trade deal but as a vehicle for broader Asia/Pacific economic integration, which has enormous political implications. Alarm bells should be loudly sounding.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


NZ speaking tour by Ben Peterson
21-27 March 2010

Ben: "When I was in Nepal I met amazing people, peasant farmers, workers, students, youth, and the elderly, all fighting for a democratic future. Everywhere I went there was a common desire for something better."

Ben Peterson is a young Australian socialist who spent four and a half months in Nepal in close association with the revolutionary forces who recently overthrew feudalism and are today confronting capitalism and imperialism. Ben is crossing the Tasman for a speaking tour of New Zealand from 21-27 March. Ben's visit will be a great opportunity to learn more about the exciting events in Nepal.

There are meetings in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The tour itinerary is as follows:


• Sunday 21 March - Auckland

2pm @ Auckland Trades Hall, 147 Great North Road, Grey Lynn.

• Monday 22 March - Auckland

1pm @ Function Room (over Quad café), Auckland University.

• Tuesday 23 March – Hamilton & Rotorua

1-2pm (followed by discussion) @ SUB G.20 (Guru Phabians room), Student Union Building, Waikato University.

7.30pm @ Ghandi Hall, 16 Gibson Street, (opp ten-pin bowling alley), Rotorua.

• Wednesday 24 March - Wellington

6pm @ Newtown Community Centre, 1 Columbo Street, Wellington.

• Thursday 25 March - Dunedin

1pm @ University Union Main Common Room, Dunedin University. 

7pm @ Knox Church Hall, George Street, Dunedin.

• Friday 26 March - Christchurch

1pm @ Steed Meeting Room (next to the International Room), UCSA building, Canterbury University

• Saturday 27 March – Christchurch

7:30pm @ WEA, 59 Gloucester Street, Christchurch. 


To help support and promote Ben’s tour contact these people:

Auckland - Daphna Whitmore, wpnz@clear.net.nz.
Hamilton - Jared Philips, jared@unite.org.nz, 029-4949 863.
Rotorua - Bernie Hornfeck, bernieh@clear.net.nz, (07)345 9853.
Wellington - Alastair Reith, alastair.reith@gmail.com, (04)384 1917.
Christchurch - Phil Ferguson, philip.ferguson@canterbury.ac.nz, 021-443 948.
Dunedin - Andrew Tait, andrewmtait@hotmail.com, 027-606 9549.

National co-ordination/publicity - Vaughan Gunson, svpl@xtra.co.nz, 021-0415 082.


You can join the Facebook group: Ben Peterson NZ Speaking Tour. More information on Ben's tour and events in Nepal can be found there.


To help pay for the cost of Ben’s international and domestic airfares please make a donation into this account: Nepal Solidarity, Kiwibank 38-9010-0315883-00.

Ben Peterson’s tour of NZ was initiated by Socialist Worker and the Workers Party (workersparty.org.nz), with the International Socialist Organisation in Dunedin (iso.org.nz). Meetings in each centre are being organised with the support of other groups and individuals.

If you would like more information don't hesitate to contact us.

In solidarity,

Vaughan Gunson
021-0415 082

Friday, 12 March 2010

Merak asylum seekers need a just solution

A call for urgent action by the
Indonesian and Australian governments

The situation at Merak has dragged on much too long. For over 120 days, the 254 mostly Tamil asylum seekers have been stranded there. They have suffered hardships at the hands of the Australian and Indonesian authorities. The International Organisation of Migration funded by Australia to provide welfare assistance for asylum seekers has used its control over food, and medicine and other welfare to deprive the refugees of basic needs such as medicine, tarpaulins, and toilets to try to force people off the boat.

With each passing day, the conditions deteriorate further and the suffering grows. The lack of medical attention and basic care cost the life of a 29 year-old man, Jacob Christin, in December 2009.

Call for protests during US president Obama's visit to Guam, Indonesia & Australia

We, the undersigned progressive, anti-war, anti-neoliberalism and anti-imperialist organisations in the Asia-Pacific region, call for a wave protests to meet U.S. President Barack Obama's planned visits to Guam, Indonesia and Australia in March this year.

While President Obama was awarded Nobel peace prize last year, in fact his administration is escalating U.S.-led military aggression all around the world and continuing the Bush administration's so-called “war on terrorism” – which was in reality a return to colonial military occupations in the Third World justified by lies and a campaign of fear and racism. The war-like policies of the U.S. serve to protect and advance its economic exploitation and domination all around the world.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

IWD discussion: Sue Bradford

Sue Bradford

1. What, if anything, does International Womens Day mean to you?

International Womens Day is a chance for all of us to stop and reflect on where women have got to at any given time, and what we’re still up against. While we’ve made huge gains in the last few decades, there is of course still a long way to go, and I think it’s great that International Women’s Day gives women a chance both to celebrate achievements and solidarity, and also to get reenergised for the struggles ahead.

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa NZ? If not, why not? If so, what is it doing?

There is not one unified feminist or women’s movement in our country, but then again, there never has been, even in the heyday of what we used to call ‘women's liberation’.

However, what we have are many different women who identify as feminist doing all sorts of critical things in our communities, from running women’s refuge and rape crisis organisations through to women on the front line of low wage worker, beneficiary and community organising work – and a whole lot else as well.

I think one of the biggest myths is that feminism has died, or that young women are no longer feminist. There are wonderful young women around our country who act politically and creatively from a feminist perspective, including, for example, the collective who put out the feminist zine ‘Muse’ in Wellington.

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa NZ today?

I think some of the biggest challenges facing women and feminists today are:

• Closing the income gap between women and men – glaring inequalities continue, and are likely to be accentuated by the ongoing impacts of global recession, resource depletion and climate change.

• Continuing work on changing male attitudes which still far too often see us as the objects of physical and psychological violence and abuse.

• Addressing the rights and needs of women who have least in our society – women in low paid work and on benefits; Maori women; Pasifika, migrant and refugee women; and women who live with physical, mental and/or intellectual impairment.

We also have to face up to the problems of complacency, of thinking that we’ve ‘got there’ and that the clock will never be turned back. My biggest fear is not about what we haven’t achieved, but about how easily it would be for our society to revert to one where all the gains we’ve made could so easily be lost. The first thing we have to do in this respect is to fight to retain a proportionally representative voting system, otherwise we could go backwards very quickly.

Monday, 8 March 2010

IWD discussion: Catherine Delahunty

Catherine Delahunty

1. What (if anything) does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day always makes me think of how many women are still in economic slavery or have internalised the capitalist oppressor and think they’re fat and ugly. It’s a great continuum to think about, which shows what a fun person I really am.

But seriously, every day is unequal pay day for women in a rich nation like this one. And if you are tangata whenua, Pacifica, refugee or migrant, or with a disability – don’t even think about pay equity! We have a Government who axed the pay equity investigation unit “because of the recession”, as they say about everything they want to cut to pieces. 

Then there’s domestic violence statistics here and everywhere. A recent open hearing on maternal health in the Pacific stated that five women per day die from maternity related deaths in the Pacific region, so that is a statistic we need to address! 

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa New Zealand? If not why not? If so, what is it doing?

So why do we still need feminism? Well how long have you got? The feminist movement does still exist but it’s not so much a movement as a series of small baskets full of energetic passionate women. Some are academics, some are Te Tiriti workers and some are anarcha feminists but all are isolated compared to the heady days of 70s feminism. Young women feminists in particular have to struggle with their peers being too scared to use the “f” word. 

There were always deep divisions related to class, culture and privilege in the women’s movement but there was once a consensus around the patriarchy and the need for a level of unity for economic, social, sexual and cultural rights. There is some great work going on in the Pay Equity Challenge Coalition and there are some amazing women political craft workers in all senses of the word, and the women who lead Rape Crisis and Refuge are stoically heroic. But it’s not an easy in the community sector to stand up for a feminist analysis let alone in a university, in the bedroom or at work.

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

The biggest challenge from my perspective is the way capitalism co-opts feminism and turns it into shopping and careers for the individual. 

But at a deep level – both locally and internationally – I have faith that women will continue to form groups to challenge patriarchy and that if we listen to history and indigenous women everywhere we will find the strength to save the earth and everyone from a model that fails all the vulnerable. But it’s not going to happen fast enough for some of us!

IWD discussion: Torfrida Wainright

Torfrida Wainright

1. What (if anything) does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I am a 59 year old public servant whose main feminist activity has been focused round building lesbian community and living an alternative way of being female. In this respect I’ve felt remote from International Womens Day for many years. These days I’m resonating more with the climate activists and wondering how we re-ignite the fire that sent womyn to Greenham

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa New Zealand? If not why not? If so, what is it doing?

Again, I feel a bit remote from organised feminism, as well as from the queer consciousness of many young lesbians. Some of the old dykes who identify with lesbian community are exploring how we can support one another as we get older. 

I think society is much much more fragmented than it was 20-30 years ago – we are hyperconsumers not just of material goods but ideas, causes, interests. People are much more diverse in what they do & think and it is very difficult to cut through all this ‘noise’ with any message at all, let alone create or maintain a cohesive movement for specific change.

There are lots of good things happening for women compared to 30 years ago as well as lots of areas of stagnation and backwardness (read any ‘women’s’ mag). I don’t think the various platforms of the feminism movement per se (eg equal pay, access to abortion etc) will make any basic difference if we continue with the current hyperconsumerist capitalist economy that turns everything into something to buy and sell, and seduces everyone into ignoring the dreadful price we are paying.

I find myself being drawn back to the anarchist roots of the radical lesbian movement and its passionate identification with the earth and its creatures – eg “Two women loving one another is the earth healing itself”. Radical images of living totally differently and simply, turning people’s usual approach to the world on its head, being shocking and subversive. 

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

The destruction of the natural world. The likelihood that in the next few decades most people will need to relearn many basic skills – eg farming, mechanics, community building, doctoring etc – with far fewer material resources than we have now. The likelihood of a flood of climate refugees reaching NZ, desperate for land and survival. The challenge of maintaining civil society and the rule of law in these circumstances, and not going back to the times when a woman had to have men around to be safe from other men. Lots of good opportunties, as well as dreadful challenges and difficult things to bear.

IWD discussion: Bronwen Beechey

Bronwen Beechey
member of the UNITYblog editorial board

1. What (if anything) does International Women’s Day mean to you?

For me, as a socialist and a feminist International Women’s Day has a lot of significance. It was socialist women who first proposed the idea of an international day of action for women’s rights and continued to keep it alive, until the “second wave” of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s revived it. The women’s liberation movement was largely responsible for giving thousands of women (including me) the desire and confidence to struggle for equality for women and a better world for all.

International Women’s Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate the acheivements of women, to honour their often overlooked contribution to the struggle for worker’s rights, peace and civil liberties, and to protest the injustices that still exist. But we need to make sure that these issues don’t just get token attention on March 8, then get ignored the rest of the year.

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa New Zealand? If not why not? If so, what is it doing?

The feminist movement still exists today, although considerably diminished. There is general (though not complete) acceptance in society that women have the right to work outside the home, to control their fertility and to live free from violence. But despite the efforts of the mass media to convince us that we live in a “post-feminist” era, the reality is that women are still not equal.

While NZ women have a high rate of participation in the labour force, they are still concentrated in the lower-paid occupations and still carry out the majority of unpaid work in the home. Women are more likely to be subjected to rape and domestic abuse, and it’s probably in this area that the organised feminist movement has been most visible. Campaigns such as the one in support of Louise Nicholas and other women sexually abused by police have been successful in highlighting the issue, and countering sexist myths about women “asking for it”.

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

For women on low incomes who are already struggling with rising unemployment, low wages and high accomodation costs, the decision by the National government to raise GST will make life even harder. There is a real need for feminists to take up the real issue of economic inequality, as well as supporting campaigns that aim to improve the living standards of working people generally. There are also going to be attempts to cut back the already inadequate funding for women’s services – the attempts by ACC to cut funding for sexual abuse counselling is just the beginning. We need to build a strong, independent women’s movement as part of the global struggle for justice and the survival of our planet.

IWD discussion: Christine Dann

Christine Dann
author of Up from under: women and liberation in New Zealand, 1970-1985

1. What (if anything) does International Women’s Day mean to you?
International Women’s Day does not have any official status or recognition in New Zealand, as it does in a number of other countries (and it is the United  Nations ‘official’ women’s day). In the 1970s and 1980s there were efforts  by women unionists in NZ to celebrate it, and to raise its status as a day  for honouring the work done by women, but little seems to happen around it here these days.

Perhaps this is because it has been up to the enthusiasm of unfunded individuals to organise events, and perhaps it is because New Zealand has another home-grown day for celebrating women as public citizens (Suffrage Day on September 19). Or both.

For me personally, it is a day when I am reminded to think about women’s labour struggles, past and present.

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa New Zealand? If not why not? If so, what is it doing?

There are no longer any women’s organisations (such as the Women’s Liberation Movement and the National Organisation of Women) campaigning, lobbying and protesting for women’s political, economic and social rights and participation across the board, as there were in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are support services (e.g. Rape Crisis, Women’s Refuge) which owe their existence to the women’s liberation activists of the 1970s, and from time to time there is some feminist activity within existing organisations and institutions e.g. unions, churches, political parties, the health service. But the ‘Second Wave’ of feminism, as the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was dubbed (the ‘First Wave’ being the militant feminism of the late nineteenth century) has well and truly washed up on the shore.

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

The first and second waves of feminism in Aotearoa were effective in securing women’s ‘freedom to’ and ‘rights to’ be fully participating members of political and economic society. Unfortunately the freedom or right to fully  participate in a capitalist society which is run by a business-political  elite does not ensure that all women have freedom from poverty, violence, malnutrition, preventable illness and economic and physical exploitation. Nor does it ensure that women (and men) will have a physical/natural environment that is both pleasant and safe to live in now, and capable of sustaining their needs and those of their descendents adequately in the future.

In the thirteen years since NZ gained its first female prime minister, chief justice and attorney general, a few more women have entered the political, legal and business elites, while the majority of women have experienced a de facto cut in their pay rates and other income, and significant cuts in educational and social welfare support. Rates of violence against women remain high, and women largely remain segregated in the narrow range of  (relatively) low-paying occupations they were in thirty years ago. Where women are in non-traditional occupations, they earn less than men.

In the 1980s decisions were made at the highest level to stop teaching domestic and trade skills at secondary schools, and to turn NZ into an importing economy rather than a manufacturing one. Thus women (and men)were simultaneously deprived of training in useful home and work skills, and diverse opportunities for paid employment making useful goods. 
A few people (some of them female) have gained at the expense of the many, and the country as a whole is worse off socially, economically and environmentally than it was thirty years ago, despite the rise in money-denominated wealth.

If women as a whole are to do better in the future in NZ, then feminist activists must address the economic and political causes of this state of affairs, and propose and implement alternative economic and social arrangements. The globalist expansion of neo-liberal capitalism is in any case entering its end game, with the peaking of global oil supplies and other cheap resources on which it is based, and the subsequent increasing frequency and severity of debt crises and collapses. Global trade will contract - which will be good for the environment and for employment in NZ, as we stop pumping out milk powder to the world and start making more useful things for each other at home once again.

But planning and managing this transition to a sustainable economy, so that it is more positive for women than globalism, is a major challenge ahead. Interestingly, I am only one of a number of Second Wave feminists who are currently involved with some aspect of the growing Transition Towns movement in NZ (www.transitiontowns.org.nz), which is a community-based, democratic response to the huge environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century. The local level is where we can be most effective, and the local level is going to be increasingly important for sourcing our needs as the global and national economy ‘powers down’.

20th century feminism was largely about creating opportunities and choices for women within existing economic and political structures. 21st century feminism will be about changing those structures from the ground up, and creating more genuinely equitable and sustainable ways to live for everyone.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

‘Beware! The end is nigh!’

Why global capitalism is 
tipping towards collapse,
and how we can act for a decent future1



The fable behind the stereotype

Global capitalism tipping towards collapse? “C’mon,” goes the standard response, “don’t you know that’s been predicted for ages and it’s never happened?”

That standard response is reinforced by the mass media’s visual cliché of some crazed guy, usually wearing a monk’s cassock, preaching the Apocalyptic message: “Beware! The end is nigh!”

Behind this sneering stereotype lurk denials that global capitalism could suffer the same fate as all past civilisations.

Early capitalism grew amidst the slow-motion collapse of medieval Europe3 which, after lasting for a millennium, was being overwhelmed by market forces. Feudalism’s forerunner, the ancient slave-based epoch, lasted 4,000 years until the Western Roman Empire4 fell quickly in 476 after several centuries of internal decay and border wars.

Before perishing, past civilisations spawned fables about their everlasting nature. Those fables gave popular legitimacy to societies divided by class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and religion.

The tradition of ages is continued by capitalism. According to its ideologues, “flexibility” is so embedded in capitalism that collapse becomes impossible. Yet such claims fly in the face of history. We need to do our own thinking so that our minds cannot be colonised by anyone’s fables.

Wild times of late feudalism

In the late Middle Ages, Europe’s land-based hierarchies were disintegrating under pressure from unstoppable market forces. Feudal society was collapsing before capitalism had solidified into a new type of civilisation.5

The dieback of half Europe’s population from famines, pandemics and wars6 gave life to the independence of landed serfs from their feudal masters. A swing from subsistence agriculture to farming for profit led to the enclosure of peasant commons. The growth of urban populations disconnected from feudal land relations was nurtured by industrial production and invention. An expansion of trade, money, credit and markets, fueled by colonisation of the New World, saw the rise of a capitalist class increasingly conscious of its own “manifest destiny”. A scientific, educational and cultural Renaissance7 fed into the Great Schism within Christianity, eroding Papal hegemony8. The rapid increase in the ranks of wage workers coincided with an explosion of popular uprisings across Europe9 and the rise of absolute monarchies, all diminishing feudalism’s nobility and church.

From these wild times grew new productive forces which gave birth to new social forces, collapsing late feudalism’s mode of production and hierarchy of privilege in the midst of chaos, wars and uprisings.

From our vantage point five centuries on, we know that medieval civilisation could never have survived these multiple crises as they converged into a perfect storm10.

Near the end of the Middle Ages, however, hardly anyone was calling for the creation of a capitalist world. It just happened out of a volatile mix of economic revolution, social combustion and historical accident.

Complex and random

Today, our ability to interpret world trends is exponentially greater than in the Middle Ages. So is our need to do so, given the potential for catastrophes like sea level rises, global hunger and war without end.

Despite our ability and our need to do serious forecasting, we must avoid the trap of downplaying the unknowable effects of random events and dynamic complexity.

Events buck trends,” says British historian Piers Brendon11. “The past is a map, not a compass.” Still, he admits, “history is our only guide”.12

Random events, those happenings that nobody could foresee, always have a huge impact on historical outcomes. Let’s be warned by a church in America whose electronic billboard declared: “[Our] class on prophecy has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.”13

Unstoppable forces leave large footprints whose direction we can see. Yet it is impossible to predict what historical outcomes might be produced by the infinite number of possible interactions of systemic crises and human actors and random events. This dynamic complexity would fool even a deterministic God.

Global capitalism is easily the most complex social system in history. This mega-complexity increases the likelihood of system failures, like the international financial implosion of 2008.14

But there’s a flip side to complexity. It offers multiple layers of protection against a system failure leading onto system collapse. The financial implosion, therefore, sparked a multi-state mobilisation to ward off immediate world economic collapse.15

Convergence of five existential crises

Even the in-depth defence offered by layers of complexity could not protect capitalism from a convergence of existential crises16 which overwhelm multiple fronts of the world system.

Such a perfect storm is now gathering force.

Jorge Benstein, a Marxist economist in Argentina, points to the historic intersection of economic, food, energy and other “visible crises” which could strike the world system at any time. He concludes: “We are facing the convergence of numerous crises which in reality is one global gigantic crisis with different faces, never seen before in history.”17

During the 20th century, capitalism was destabilised by occasional intersections of just two system-level social crises. Examples include the imperial and legitimacy crises flowing from both World Wars, and the Great Depression’s profitability and legitimacy crises.

Today, for the first time since its birth 500 years ago, global capitalism is facing the convergence of five system-level crises embracing nature as well as society:
  • Profitability crisis.
  • Ecological crisis.
  • Resource crisis.
  • Imperial crisis.
  • Legitimacy crisis.

As these five crises converge into a perfect storm they will tip global capitalism towards collapse amidst international revolutions and counter-revolutions.

We cannot foresee what type of new civilisation(s) will result from the unpredictably complex interactions of human actors with economic, ecological and imperial shifts.

But a perfect storm overwhelmed late feudalism, and there seems no reason to expect that late capitalism’s fate will be any different. Given its global interconnectivity and the life-threatening scale of its problems, capitalism is likely to fall at speed compared to feudalism’s slow-motion collapse.

So let’s put the five existential crises of capitalism under the microscope.


Growth gene dominates capitalism’s DNA

To understand the world system we need to see how capitalism arrived at where it is today.18

After finding solid form in the Italian city states of the late 15th century, capitalism’s first great wave of geographical expansion had by 1650 rolled over most of Europe and some of the Americas. A second expansionary convulsion, from 1750 to 1850, incorporated the rest of the Americas, Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, South Asia and parts of West Africa and South-East Asia. During the half-century up to 1900, an orgy of imperial conquest fueled capitalism’s final wave of expansion into East Asia, Oceania and the rest of Africa and South-East Asia.

For the first time in human history, all societies on all continents were absorbed into a single world economy. On its economic foundations grew capitalist states juggling national sovereignty and international connectivity.

This relentless geosocial expansion points towards the system’s key dynamic: capital, and thus capitalism, must grow to survive. The growth gene in capitalism’s DNA was dominant from Day One, compelling an eternal accumulation of capital for its own sake.

The essence of capitalism, in the famous shorthand of Karl Marx19, is M-C-M’. Money capital (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are transformed into new commodities embodying the fruits of labour and then sold in the market for more money (M’). And so the cycle continues forever. Any interruption in the unending accumulation of capital throws the system into crisis.20

Immanuel Wallerstein, pioneer of world-systems analysis, puts it this way: “In this system, past accumulations were ‘capital’ only to the extent they were used to accumulate more of the same.”21

The interwoven worlds of work and nature were colonised by the market forces of rival capitalists and states. Ever more things were given a money value and turned into commodities. Ever more people became commodified wage workers. Wages were much lower in value than the surplus produced by workers, but captured by capitalists and turned into profits through market exchanges. This “free lunch” for capitalists, bolstered by imperial pillage of the global South22, bankrolled the reinvestment of profits, fueling an endless cycle of capital accumulation. Overseeing that cycle were a colourful mix of politicians whose souls were all mortgaged to the Dictatorship of the Profitariat. The fusion of government and business went hand-in-hand with the conglomeration of capital into global oligarchies.

There were constant threats to capitalism’s accumulation cycle, including economic slumps, political crises, inter-state warfare, popular revolts, national liberation conflicts, Communist23 revolutions and Karl Marx. While their impact was often significant, the world system always managed to claw back an adjusted equilibrium.

Three strands of neoliberalism

Alternating highs and lows in system profitability, with each phase typically lasting a decade or two, were a longtime feature of capitalist evolution.

After World War II ended in 1945 there were more than two decades of feverish economic growth and ultra-high profitability.24 This global Long Boom bankrolled expansions of state services in rich countries and state capitalist industrial projects in poor countries.

In 1971 the collapse of the Bretton Woods international finance architecture25 marked the onset of a stubborn decline in system profitability. Global capitalism spiralled into profit shock. The previously rare virus of stagflation migrated around the world.26

Karl Marx was clear on the root cause of capitalism’s economic crises. He stated: “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.”27

Yet global capitalism’s response to a crisis embedded in grassroots “poverty” was to make the masses even poorer, giving a temporary boost to profitability by feeding the demons of crises to come.

Led by US president Ronald Reagan28, and promoted by big business everywhere, governments embraced the agenda of neoliberalism.29 This agenda had three main strands:
  • Privatisation.30
  • Globalisation.31
  • Financialisation.32

While none of these strands was new, the key difference was their elevation into strategic imperatives.

In rich states of the global North, grassroots outrage was mostly directed at the first strand, privatisation, which undercut the historic welfare state gains of social democratic parties.

In poor states of the global South, grassroots outrage was mostly directed at the second strand, globalisation, which undercut the historic economic development gains of national independence movements.

As time has passed, however, it seems that the greatest longrun impact on world trends is coming from neoliberalism’s third strand: financialisation.

A global Ponzi scheme

Government deregulation, starting in the rich economies and spreading outwards, stimulated a gigantic expansion of the financial sector. Its promise, in essence, was of bumper returns today from larger claims on tomorrow’s income streams.

Fueling this promise were two things: first, income transfers from poor to rich, and second, upsurges of speculation in asset bubbles33. Both flowed from the neoliberal agenda enforced by social democratic as well as conservative governments.

Despite rising productivity in America, the world’s biggest economy, real hourly wages have fallen over the past generation. In 1973 US real hourly wages peaked at $20.30, tumbling to $16.39 in 2008.34 A similar story can be told for most other countries since the onset of neoliberalism.

Capitalist capture of a greater portion of the surplus created by workers fed an accumulation cycle increasingly reliant on financial speculation to maximise profits.

At the same time, workers in America and other rich states offset their declining wages through increasing levels of home mortgage borrowing and credit card spending.

The combined result was a phenomenal rise in debt ratios, especially across rich economies. Total US debt as a percentage of gross domestic product soared from around 130% in 1950 to 370% in 2009.35

International financial transactions climbed to 60 times the level of global gross domestic product.36

Big banks grew ever more powerful within global capitalism. For instance, America’s six largest banks now have assets in excess of 63% of gross domestic product. This is a significant increase from even 2006, when the same banks owned assets worth around 55% of GDP, and a complete transformation from just 15 years ago when the six largest banks held combined assets of only 17% of GDP.37

As debt creation provided the security for further debt creation, the increasingly shaky edifice took on the look of a global Ponzi scam.38 But the perpetuators of this international rort were shielded as never before by government laws, corporate politicians and state officials.39

Feeding the unfinancial monster

On 18 September 2008, US Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke40 and US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson41 made an emergency dash to Capitol Hill. There they told senior politicians that the United States and other major economies were just “days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system”. Lawmakers at the heart of the world’s most powerful empire were left stunned.42

But central bankers knew what they had to do: bail out the financiers. Since September 2008, in the greatest orgy of debt creation in history, central bankers have pumped countless hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial sectors of America, China, Europe and elsewhere.43

The first rule of central banking,” says US economist James K. Galbraith44, is that “when the ship starts to sink, central bankers must bail like hell.”45

What the Great Bailout means is a global transfer of liabilities from private financiers to central banks on an unprecedented scale. A breathing space has been won by shifting the problem.

But the problem has not been solved. Just the opposite. Governments are feeding the unfinancial monster with such magnitudes of bailout money that bankruptcy is looming for many states, especially the United States, Britain and Europe’s PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain).

Decades ago, the limits and risks of financialisation were indicated by two US socialists, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy. At some point, they said, the rising mountain of debt would grow beyond the capacity of governments to intervene effectively as lender of last resort. When that point was reached, capitalism faced the collapse of the entire financialised regime of accumulation.46

Fallout from the 2008 financial implosion has compelled even some capitalists to start visualising that point.

Todd Harrison47, a longtime Wall Street financier, aptly asks: “If sovereign lifeguards saved corporations when the financial crisis first hit, who is left to save the lifeguards?”48

And Britain’s neoliberal journal The Economist points to growing dangers in shifting the problem from banks to states. The editor sounded a grim warning in February 2010: “Last year it was banks; this year it is countries. We, like the markets, are preoccupied with the growing dangers to the world economy. Sovereign risk in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland is a large part of it, but there are also good reasons to worry about how governments are going to manage the difficult business of withdrawing the stimulus that has kept economies going.”49

So temporary respite from world financial breakdown has been purchased at the price of greater system instability. That instability poses great risks to future profitability and the accumulation cycle upon which capitalism’s survival depends.

Marxists dispute why, not what

Can global capitalism stage an orderly retreat from its risky financialisation strategy? Can the world system be reformed so that profitability is more firmly anchored to the real economy?

That does not seem possible. The shift to financialisation occurred because the real economy could no longer generate sufficient profits to sate capitalism’s growth gene. This still holds true, say most Marxists. Where they disagree is over why.

Among different Marxist interpretations of the longrun profitability crisis in the real economy are these five strong contenders:

  • Profitability is under siege from structural stagnation caused by the global growth of monopolies, forcing ever more investments into financial bubbles rather than the real economy.
  • The industrialisation of China, India, Brazil and other formerly peripheral countries, funded in large part by investments from the global North, is trimming the inflated profits previously extracted by corporate monopolies in core states.
  • The increasing ratio of capital inputs as compared with labour inputs in the global competition for higher unit productivity is hollowing out the extraction of surplus value from labour exploitation.
  • The transformation of surplus value into actual profits through market exchanges is being blighted by unprecedented wealth polarisation and the consequent weakening of consumer purchasing power.
  • Profits are being squeezed by longrun rises in wages, taxes and environmental costs which flow from the increasing social weight of workers on a world scale and the necessity to mitigate climate change and other ecological disasters.

Each of these five interpretations seem to have strengths in different areas. Perhaps this just highlights the complexity of global capitalism.

Doomsday cycle’ risks world ‘collapse’

America is now immersed in a “doomsday cycle” where banks use borrowed money to take massive risks in a drive for big shareholder dividends and big management bonuses, and when the risks go wrong the banks receive taxpayer bailouts from the government.

So says a panel of economists, financiers and officials in a March 2010 report commissioned by the Roosevelt Institute, a mainstream US think tank.

Risk-taking by banks,” the report cautions, “will soon be larger then ever.”

Despite calling on the Obama administration to make planned reforms of the US financial sector more stringent, the report admits: “Our government leaders have shown little capacity to fix the flaws in our market system.”

The report declares: “In 2008-09, we came remarkably close to another Great Depression. Next time we may not be so ‘lucky’. The threat of the doomsday cycle remains strong and growing.”

The next financial shock may spark a “calamitous global collapse”, warns the report.50

State nationalises economic crisis

The 2008 financial implosion caused the same sort of “existential crisis” for neoliberal economists as 1970s stagflation caused for social democratic economists, says Larry Elliott, economics editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The “structural weaknesses” behind the crisis “remain untackled”, leaving the economy “sick”.51

With the accumulation cycle suffering from hardening of the arteries, capitalism becomes more dependent on financialisation. This risky stimulant, legalised by the state, increases the frequency and severity of economic seizures.

After each seizure, the government doctor is called in to prescribe more taxpayer-funded stimulants, a cure that soon worsens the disease. In effect, the state nationalises economic crisis, guaranteeing the bad habits of “too big to fail” corporations who drag the economy into chronic failure.

Propping up big business with government protection rackets is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism. US liberal Barry Lynn notes: “Our political economy is run by a compact elite” who “fuse the power” of government and corporations in ways that allow members of the elite to decide “who wins, who loses and who pays”.52

Not surprisingly, over the history of capitalism, those hardest hit by economic crises have always been the grassroots of poor states and the workers of rich states. They have often taken to the streets, and sometimes the barricades, to resist job losses, income reductions and government austerity measures.

Since the 2008 financial implosion, and state bailouts of bankrupt corporations, grassroots anger in Europe and America has been focused as much on politicians as capitalists.

That’s an early sign of how state nationalisation of economic crisis will change the nature of popular protest in times to come. Of necessity, protests over economic hardships will take on the look of uprisings against governments. The institutional subservience of politicians to capitalists will stir people to insurrections that cross national borders.

Make the rich pay for the crisis!’

Make the rich pay for the crisis!” That chant rang out from multitudes of Greek unionists in 70 cities on 24 February 2010. From a total workforce of five million, two million were striking against the PASOK social democratic government’s austerity plan to fund the bailout of Greek financiers.

People are outraged. Their blood is boiling! Now there’s a mood to escalate the strikes. We shouldn’t pay for the crisis, the ones who caused it should pay.” So said Vagia Gouma, a public sector worker taking part in the mammoth march in Athens.53

The day before, huge rallies took place across Spain’s cities in opposition to the PSOE social democratic government’s crisis measures on behalf of the rich elites.

A week later, half a million public sector unionists in Portugal went on strike against a pay freeze and other budget cutting by the PS social democratic government. “There’s a huge amount of discontent,” reported Manuel Carvalho da Silva, general secretary of the General Confederation of Portugese Workers.54

This cross-border wave of social unrest was bolstered by high-profile strikes of German and French unionists.

Europe’s workers are becoming increasingly restive,” notes Sean O’Grady, economics editor of The Independent newspaper in Britain. He spoke of “the start of the greatest demonstration of public unrest seen on the continent since the revolutionary fervour of 1968”.55

On the other side of the globe, China’s grassroots are growing more restive. According to Beijing’s own figures, almost certainly understated, incidents of “mass unrest” grew from 8,709 in 1993 to over 90,000 in each of the past three years. And that’s despite a harsh state ban on independent unions and parties.

More and more evidence shows that the situation is getting more and more tense, more and more serious,” reports Yu Jianrong, director of social issues research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences56, an affiliate of the State Council of China. He said the Communist Party’s obsession with retaining state power through “violence” and “ideology” was taking China to the brink of “revolutionary turmoil”.57

Different political systems in Europe and China have produced different types of government, one parliamentary, the other authoritarian. Yet both forms of capitalist administration are now facing a similar challenge: popular uprisings. The obscenity of governments protecting the rich at great cost to the poor is stirring up a social contagion. What cannot be foreseen is how far and how fast the contagion will spread around the globe.


If the climate were a bank’

If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it by now.” So said Hugo Chavez, the socialist president of Venezuela58, inside the recent Copenhagen climate summit59, echoing a slogan chanted by 100,000 protesters outside.

The governments of America and Europe have spent 313 times more on the Great Bailout than on climate change programmes.60 These corporate politicians well know that climate change threatens life on Earth, yet they put profits first.

According to professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research61, only around 10% of the planet’s population will survive if global temperatures rise by 4C. The current UK Met Office projections are that 4C could be exceeded by 2060, and 6C by century’s end.

The prospects are “terrifying”, says Anderson. “For humanity it’s a matter of life or death.”62

2,500 climate experts from 80 countries issued a statement in March 2009 saying that, without strong carbon reduction targets, “abrupt or irreversible” shifts in climate may occur which will be “very difficult” for societies to cope with. Their statement was delivered to a preparatory conference of the Copenhagen summit.63

Nine months later the Copenhagen summit ended in failure, with no binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions. A cabal of rich states, led by US president Barack Obama64, had sabotaged the proceedings.

The governments of the elites have no solutions to offer,” observed the Climate Justice Now! coalition65, an eyewitness to the summit.66

Deep fracture inside world system

Copenhagen exposed a deep fracture inside the world system. Delegates from poor states chanted “We will not die quietly” as they staged walkouts in protest at the sabotage of rich states.67

This system fracture reflects the geosocial inequality of climate change.

The rich states, which produced 75% of the carbon now in the atmosphere, sucked much of their wealth from poor states through a mix of market forces and military power. Now the poor states, mostly sited in geographical zones forecast to be hit first and worst by climate change, are being deserted by the rich states. In keeping with market traditions, the global North is disputing and devaluing its ecological debt to the global South.

80% of the planet’s population reside in countries classed as “developing”. These 5.6 billion people live mostly in poverty and increasingly in urban slums. Now many are on the front line of climate catastrophe. Their survival will hinge on their struggle to “change the system, not the climate”, as protesters chanted at Copenhagen.

The main historic agent and initiator of a new epoch of ecological revolution,” says US socialist John Bellamy Foster68, could well be found in “the third world masses most directly in line to be hit first” by climate change. Like Marx’s proletariat, they have “nothing to lose” from making the “radical changes” needed to avoid disaster. Foster points towards poor people in low-lying areas facing rising sea levels, such as India’s Kerala state, China’s Guangdong industrial region and Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. With many of them being wage workers, they potentially form the “global epicentre of a new environmental proletariat”.69

The rights of Mother Earth

So who can inspire and mobilise the masses of the global South as the climate catastrophe lurches closer? Naturally, someone who looks and sounds and thinks like them.

Evo Morales, the first indigenous and socialist president of Bolivia70, has stepped into the void left by Copenhagen’s failure.

Morales is convening a People’s World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights in Bolivia in April 2010. Invited without strings are national governments, UN agencies, social movements and climate scientists.71

Key objectives of the People’s World Conference are:
  • Analyse the structural and systemic causes of climate change.
  • Propose substantive measures for the well-being of humanity in harmony with nature.
  • Decide on a draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
  • Work towards a People’s World Referendum on Climate Change.
  • Move towards the establishment of a Climate Justice Tribunal.
  • Define strategies for mobilisation against climate change and for the rights of Mother Earth.72

According to Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, Morales has called the conference with the aim of altering the international balance of forces and so changing the agenda on climate and other eco-issues.73

Will these aims be advanced by the People’s World Conference? Only time will tell. But times of change do call forward prophets of change who can mobilise the forces of change.

As Christophe Aguiton of the European Social Forum said in reference to the Bolivian president’s initiative: “In periods of uncertainty and transition, such as the times we are in, initiatives that could be seen as crazy or unrealistic are, from time to time, those that change the course of history.”74

Profiteering from pollution

In the centres of world power, a very different story is unfolding. Washington, Berlin, London and other capitals of capitalism are promoting a market “solution” to climate change.

A global carbon market75 is being pushed hard by the political and corporate elites of rich states. Their aim, in the words of a climate justice coalition, is to “create opportunities for profit rather than to reduce emissions”.76

Carbon trading transforms the planet’s atmosphere into a commodity, opening it up to speculative bubbles. According to a 2009 report by Friends of the Earth77, carbon trading could give rise to the world’s largest financial derivatives market.78

Carbon markets should be popularly named pollution markets. They allow a polluter to buy the right to continue emitting carbon, and to sell the right to pollute to other emitters.

Pollution markets are, in effect, planned to fail, otherwise there would not be sufficient tradable emissions to keep the market profitable. It is the worst form of climate change denial. “Green capitalism”79 is a dangerous mirage.

Government advisors who dispute official lies about carbon trading are being gagged and hounded. That was the experience of Clive Spash, an ecological economist in Australia,80 who was muzzled and threatened by his boss at the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation. Spash had to resign from CSIRO in order to publish his research paper critical of carbon trading.

In this paper, Spash reveals how carbon permits have become “a serious financial instrument in markets turning over billions of dollars a year”. Yet the “reality” of carbon trading is “far removed from the assumptions of economic theory and the promise of saving resources”. Spash says “corporate power” has shaped carbon market design and operation, giving “the potential for manipulation to achieve financial gain, while showing little regard for environmental or social consequences”. His conclusion? “The focus on such markets is creating a distraction from the need for changing human behaviour, institutions and infrastructure.”81

In capitalist mythology, markets are the best way to find the “real” price of anything. This claim is proven false by the artificially low market price of fossil fuels, a result of capitalism’s looting of nature without factoring in real ecological and social costs.

Climate scientist James Hansen, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies,82 tells governments to face up to the truth: “As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will continue and even increase on a global basis. Fossil fuels are cheapest because they are not made to pay for their effects on human health, the environment and future climate.”83

Now it’s up to us all’

The huge banner held by young eco-activists as they blocked a coal train in Australia says it all: “Rich world greed wrecked Copenhagen. Now it’s up to us all.”84

A just society would outlaw profiteering in the carbon emissions threatening life on Earth. That sense of morality is driving the swift rise of the youth-based climate justice movement in the rich states.

Speaking on behalf of 100,000 climate justice campaigners at Copenhagen, the Klimaforum09 declaration rejected the carbon market and other forms of “climate neocolonialism”.85

The deep fracture of the world system between rich and poor states is being replicated within rich states between ruling elites and radicalising youth. The ecological crisis is making allies of people who may not otherwise have felt a common bond.

You probably know the saying, “Those who the gods would destroy, they first make mad”. It is mad for capitalism’s elites to profiteer in carbon emissions that may doom them and their kind. They are ruling a system unable to save either itself, or its citizens, from destruction because capital accumulation is more urgent.

As that realisation sinks into the public mind, a popular cry will ring out: “We won’t let you destroy us!” Then the climate crisis will also become a political crisis, a necessary tipping point being brought closer by the rapid growth of climate movements in poor states and among the youth of rich states.

Broad spectrum of ecological hazards

As the international climate movement blossoms, realisation will spread that global warming is just the most urgent threat among a broad spectrum of ecological hazards. Their common source is capitalism’s destructive exploitation of nature without being held to account.

If the world’s 3,000 biggest corporations were made to pay the cost of their environmental damage, says a United Nations report, in 2008 they would have faced a bill of $2.2 trillion. That figure, larger than the national economies of all but seven countries in the world, would have gutted their profits by an average of one-third.86

All operations of capitalism “violate” nature’s laws of “restitution and metabolic restoration”, notes John Bellamy Foster. While the most serious ecological threat is “widespread, multi-faceted” climate change, “the global environmental crisis involves manifold problems and cannot be reduced to global warming alone”.

Foster includes these ecological “hazards”:
  • Species extinction.
  • Loss of tropical forests.
  • Destruction of ocean ecology.
  • Disappearing supplies of fresh water.
  • Despoilment of lakes and rivers.
  • Detrimental effects of large dams.
  • Desertification.
  • Toxic wastes.
  • Acid rain.
  • Urban congestion.
  • World hunger.
  • Overpopulation.

Together with climate change, “these threats constitute the greatest challenge to the survival of humanity since its prehistory”, he states.

Since “fundamental” changes in capitalism are “off limits”, the system can only offer technological responses to ecological problems, concludes Foster. “But any technological gains in efficiency in the use of natural resources are overwhelmed by the extensive and ecologically disruptive pattern of growth that characterizes this rapacious system. Hence, capitalism is a failed system where ecological sustainability is concerned.”87


Peak everything in the 21st century

US ecologist Richard Heinberg88, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute89, captured a spreading mood of anxiety in the title of his 2007 book Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines.

A deluge of research findings reveal that oil and gas,90 fresh water,91 at least eleven minerals (including lead, mercury, phosphate rock, potash and selenium)92 and other resources essential to industrial capitalism have either peaked or are close to doing so. Global coal production could peak within two decades.93

Capitalism’s growth gene has spurred a reckless looting and spoilage of nature, particularly since the invention of the oil well drill 150 years ago. The world system could not allow sensible conservation measures to impede its insane plunder of the planet.

Now the onset of a broad spectrum resource crisis is about to shove capitalist society hard up against the limits of capitalist growth. Probably the crunch will be first felt in soaring oil prices, triggering economic chaos and geopolitical shifts.

Over the past year, a barrel of crude oil has doubled in price to $78. Two leading oil traders, Bank of America and Barclays Capital, have told their clients to brace for relentless escalations in crude prices over the decade.

Oil has the potential to flirt with $100 this year,” says Amrita Sen, an oil expert at Barclays. “We forecast an average price of $137 by 2015.”

Driving these surging prices are falls in supply alongside longrun rises in world demand. Francisco Blanch, from Bank of America, reports that output from non-OPEC states is falling by 4.9% each year, despite Russia’s reserves. OPEC states can plug only a quarter of the gap.

The oil spike brought the global economy to a shuddering halt in 2008,” notes British economic commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. “This time the crunch may hit before the West has fully recovered. Whatever happens, the US, Europe and Japan will soon transfer a chunk of their wealth to the petro-powers. It is a new world order.”94

Searching for a miracle

September 2009 saw the publication of Richard Heinberg’s 80-page report on net energy levels and the fate of industrial society, significantly titled Searching for a Miracle. Here 18 known energy sources are analysed, factoring in their energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).95

The world’s current energy regime, mainly oil, gas and coal, is “unsustainable”, Heinberg notes. It is a “commonly held assumption” that alternative energy sources will be readily available, so long as sufficient investments are made in them, allowing life to “go on essentially as it is”.

But is this really the case? “Alas, we think not,” he declares. “The fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth – or even current levels of economic activity – during the remainder of the current century.”

That being so, he says, “a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all”.96

Heinberg’s report offers detailed, believable and necessary research on net energy practicalities. That’s the up side.

And here’s the down side: it’s a technocratic response to problems, so does not put social change alongside energy change. Thus Heinberg is left with his “disturbing conclusion” that existing society will face an energy deficit in the 21st century.

False hope of conservation

Heinberg’s promotion of energy conservation is a false hope.

Nearly three decades ago Leonard Brookes, chief economist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, showed how attempts to reduce energy consumption by increasing energy efficiency would simply raise demand for energy in the wider economy.97

Brookes had confirmed the 1865 findings of William Jevons on British coal consumption, widely known as the Jevons Paradox.98

Only heavy government taxation on corporate energy use will reduce energy consumption through depressing profit levels and economic growth.

Such a tax would require political restrictions on the accumulation cycle, a socialist proposal absent from Heinberg’s conclusions.

We need to reinforce technocratic responses, like Heinberg’s, with socialist proposals. We need to say something Bill Clinton would never say: “It’s the system, stupid!”99

Hooked on fossil energy

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,100 a trailblazer for ecological economics, is best known for his 1971 book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process.101

In this book, Georgescu-Roegen says that humanity’s existence ultimately depends on just “two resources of wealth”. The first is “the finite stock of mineral resources in the earth’s crust”, such as oil, and the second is “a flow of solar radiation”.102

Capitalism’s transition to industrialisation was a revolutionary break with the way human societies related to nature.

For the first time in history, the flow of solar radiation was no longer the main energy supply for the system of production and satisfaction of human needs. Instead, industrialisation was powered by concentrated (or mineralised) stocks of energy in the earth’s crust, which we call fossil fuels.

Fossil energy perfectly suited the imperatives of capital accumulation. Locality lost meaning with global transport systems powered by fossil fuels. Ready access to energy resources meant business could (re)locate anywhere in the world. The constant intensity of fossil energy impelled a constant intensity of work rhythms.

The switch to fossil fuels allowed capitalism to break free from historical limitations of space and time. Elemental market forces penetrated every geographical zone. Previously unthinkable extremes of the exploitation of labour and nature became possible, and thus necessary.

Despite marginal forays into renewable energy projects, 21st century capitalism remains hooked on fossil energy.

Here are the current ratios of world primary energy production103:
  • Crude oil 34%.
  • Coal 26.5%.
  • Natural gas 20.9%.
  • Combustible renewables (biomass) 9.8%.
  • Nuclear 5.9%.
  • Hydroelectric 2.2%.
  • Other (mainly wind and solar) 0.7%.
So fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) today produce over 80% of the planet’s energy. And fossil fuels are not just essential to capitalism’s industry, transport and urbanisation. Over the last generation or two, oil has also become the basis of market agriculture.104

Leaving aside biomass105, which in its present forms probably cause more ecological problems than solutions, under 3% of world energy is currently produced by true renewables, mainly hydropower. Of that tiny portion, less than 1% comes from wind and solar power.

Can capitalism switch to renewables?

Facing the rapid depletion of fossil fuels, could global capitalism make an emergency switch to renewable energy? Before answering that question we need an acquaintance with four energy factors: net energy, unit cost, potential scale and output consistency.

EROEI, energy returned on energy invested, measures net energy. For investment in an energy source to be worthwhile, EROEI needs to be more than 1:1, and the higher the ratio the better. Here is the EROEI of fossil fuels and true renewables:
  • Coal 50:1.
  • Oil 19:1.
  • Natural gas 10:1.
  • Hydropower 11:1 to 267:1.
  • Wind 18:1.
  • Solar photovoltaics 3.75:1 to 10:1.
  • Concentrating solar thermal 1.6:1.
  • Tidal ~6:1
  • Wave 15:1

The unit cost (measured in cents per kWh) of existing power generation in America is:
  • Coal 2 to 4
  • Natural gas 4 to 7
  • Hydropower 1
  • Wind 4.5 to 10
  • Solar photovoltaics 21 to 83
  • Concentrating solar thermal 6 to 15
  • Tidal 10
  • Wave 12

Here is today’s global annual electricity production from fossil fuels and true renewables, followed by their potential scale of electricity generation (measured in TWh):
  • Fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) 11,455 / at or near peak
  • Hydropower 2,894 / 8,680
  • Wind 160 / 83,000
  • Solar photovoltaics 8 / 2,000
  • Concentrating solar thermal 1 / 100,000
  • Tidal 0.6 / 450
  • Wave ~0 / 750

Integrating the three energy factors of net energy, unit cost and potential scale delivers a clear verdict on alternative energy. Wind and solar thermal are the only likely contenders against fossil fuels, going by known technologies.

With optimum geographical placement, wind and solar thermal can produce net energy returns nearing those of fossil fuels, although often there is a deficit. They can already generate power at prices approaching those of fossil fuels, although often there is a gap, sometimes largish. And they have the global potential to produce more energy than fossil fuels.

But what about the fourth energy factor, output consistency? That’s where wind and solar thermal fall down. They suffer from intermittency. They cannot guarantee a consistent output of energy.

In the assessment of Richard Heinberg, no single energy source is capable of replacing fossil fuels “at least until the problem of intermittency can be overcome”. The “daunting” core problem is successfully replacing the “concentrated store of solar energy” in fossil fuels with a “flux of solar energy” in such forms as sunlight and wind. (Emphasis in the original.)106

While solar power and wind generation are expanding, sometimes rapidly as in China, nowhere do these energy sources get treated as anything more than useful auxiliaries to fossil fuels. None of the powerful states have plans to make true renewables their sole or main energy source in the foreseeable future. They are focused on cornering the world’s dwindling supplies of oil and gas.

Global capitalism’s response to the energy crunch is as logically insane as its reaction to climate change. A technically feasible emergency programme of wind and solar energy construction cannot take priority because it would reduce profitability throughout the world economy.

The accumulation cycle would be destabilised since net energy returns from these renewables are sometimes lower than fossil fuels, and unit costs often higher, while output consistency cannot be guaranteed.

So global capitalism is trapped in a resource crisis of its own making, placing most people on the planet at serious risk.

War of all against all

World population rose from 791 million in 1750 to 6.7 billion in 2008.107 This growth surge flowed from industrial and agricultural revolutions which remain massively dependent on fossil fuels.

As Richard Heinberg shows, an energy deficit in the 21st century is looming under capitalism.

If this energy crunch hits hard before capitalism has been replaced by a system of solidarity, then what? Then the outlook would be dire for billions of Earth’s citizens, especially those without wealth or in poor countries.

Powerful states would squander finite resources in infinite wars to monopolise dwindling resources. Their war machines, powered by fossil fuels, would divert resources away from renewable energy projects. In the wake of military devastation and resource loss, famine and disease would stalk the planet. Under the slogan of saving “our way of life”, economies and societies would be militarised, undermining living standards and traditional liberties. To divert internal dissent and seize external resources, mainstream politicians would scapegoat “barbaric hordes” from “uncivilised lands”.

It would become, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in his 1651 royalist classic Leviathan, a “war of every man against every man” where most lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.108

If you think that sounds too grim, think about this: the end times of feudalism were the breeding ground for the Hundred Years War. During this semi-continuous war which actually spanned 116 years (1337-1453) two-thirds of the French population perished, standing armies were introduced into Western Europe for the first time in eight centuries, and the exclusionary ideology of nationalism came into vogue across England and France.109

No smooth transition

The first stages of a new Hundred Years War are already underway, this time global in scale.

The white Republican conservative George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, key states in the oil-rich Middle East region, and began talking about a “Long War”110. Both occupations are being continued by the black Democratic liberal Barack Obama, who is extending the Afghan war into Pakistan.

Bush prepared the ground for war against oil-rich Iran, a policy continued by his successor. Now Obama is surrounding oil-rich Venezuela with US troops and warships.

The common strategy of Bush and Obama expresses the commitment of US elites to a military-economic offensive to control the territories, logistics and pricing of oil. Parading in the name of “energy security”111, this petro-imperialism makes life insecure for people across the planet.

There is no possibility of a smooth transition to a world of renewable energy while the planet is ruled by fossil capitalism. The path to an alternative energy system merges with the path to an alternative social system.

As Marxist eco-philosopher Elmar Altvater says: “A society based on renewable instead of fossil energy sources must develop adequate technologies and above all social forms beyond capitalism. The relation of society to nature cannot remain the same when the fuel driving capitalist dynamics is running out.”112

Self-organising for social prosperity

Around the world, a host of community initiatives are pointing the way towards “social forms beyond capitalism” and a new “relation of society to nature”.

Some examples: transition towns, community housing, free public transport, bike sharing, cooperative businesses, indigenous collectivism, localised renewable energy, open source technologies, social networking, free universities, unofficial currencies, barter systems, seed banks, community gardens, urban farming, permaculture startups, farmers markets, food banks, social unionism, doctors without borders, community medicine, free legal aid, the list is endless.

These community initiatives reveal dissatisfaction with the old ways. Their common driver is an expansion of social wealth, not private profit, within the limits of nature, not exceeding them.

Through self-organisation, they are showing how to create the material possibilities for social prosperity despite the threats of economic crisis, energy deficits and climate change.

But something crucial to success is missing: the ability to apply the lessons of these community initiatives on a much bigger scale.

Our scale must be global

Our scale needs to be large enough to reshape world civilisation into a system of human solidarity and ecological responsibility. And that will require internationally coordinated political action.

Some may say this is not possible. Yet what is even less possible to imagine is a decent life for all Earth’s citizens while capitalism rules the world. The choice will be stark for most humans during capitalism’s end time: organise system change or be crushed.

Others may say that internationally coordinated political action is counter-productive. Their pessimism about politics is understandable, given the many historical negatives of social democratic113 and Communist114 parties and national liberation movements115.

Even so, our salvation depends on overcoming pessimism. Optimism must be organised.

Per capita fossil consumption and carbon emissions are miles above global averages in the rich nations. Way over half of their economic and state activities would be senseless in a global society of solidarity. Redundant would be much of the existing finance, advertising, retail, transport, manufacturing, real estate, chemical, auto, oil, coal, weapons and security industries, along with most of the police and all of the military agencies (army, navy, air force, spies).

Eliminating economic and state activities dedicated to capital accumulation, not social prosperity, would slash fossil consumption and carbon emissions while freeing up workers and resources for green jobs.

To move on this scale would clearly require internationally coordinated political action.

The real question is: how do we prevent our necessarily global scale of self-organisation from being subverted into serving sectional interests rather than the social good? That comes down to participatory democracy, itself a reason for the widest possible participation in political action.

We’re not wired for autonomy’

Even establishment thinkers are flagging the end of the road for capitalism as we know it.

We’re nearing an endgame for the modern age,” says Jeremy Rifkin, a key advisor to the European Union. He points to “singular events” over recent times which “signal the end”: spiking oil prices in July 2008, food riots in 30 countries, financial implosion in September 2008 and “the breakdown in Copenhagen”.

Rifkin crafted the Third Industrial Revolution plan, a response to the triple crisis of economy, climate and energy, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007 and is now being actioned by European Commission agencies. He is founding chair of the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable which embraces over 100 of the world’s leading companies in the fields of energy, transport, construction, architecture, real estate and information technology. Rifkin has authored eighteen books about science and technology’s impact on the economy, society and environment.116

Failure runs very deep,” notes Rifkin. Copenhagen failed because every world leader was “thinking geopolitics” and thus “looking out for their nation’s self-interest”, rather than “thinking biosphere”.

Moving towards “biosphere politics” will mean transformations in capitalism’s governance, economics and consciousness.

Governing units are going to change,” he predicts. “There’s going to be a shift towards continentalization.” The European Union is a “first attempt at organising a new frame of reference across continents”. In their early stages are “the Asian Union, African Union and South American Union”.

Given the “extreme dangers” of climate change, it is vital to “make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory”. Rifkin advocates “peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system” in order to distribute renewable energy sources to every building on the planet.

Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism,” he states. “We have to share across the world for it to work.” But this “collaborative commons” is not “socialism”, just a necessary shift from the current “top-down, centralized economic system”.

New scientific discoveries reveal human nature to be different from that suggested by capitalism’s Enlightenment117 philosophers. “We are not wired for autonomy or utility,” says Rifkin. “We are a social species” which is “wired for empathy and social engagement”.

A shift to continental governance and distributed energy will globalise the scope of human empathy, he forecasts. “When energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.”118

Mixed messages in dying days

Looking at Rifkin gives us insights into the evolving ideology of an intelligent capitalist.

He sees the perfect storm coming. He knows emergency measures are needed if capitalism is to have any chance of survival. So he advocates radical reforms of capitalism’s market and governance, which he knows will also transform society’s consciousness.

Yet nowhere does Rifkin challenge the power and wealth of capitalism’s rulers. His contradictory strategy is: change the dynamics of capitalism while saving its old elites.

Such mixed messages were typical of establishment reformers in the dying days of past civilisations.

For instance, in a desperate bid to expand the social base of absolute monarchy, Czarist Russia sold land to freed serfs while also expanding the power of their oppressors, landlords and capitalists. These contradictory moves hastened the collapse and overthrow of the imperial order.119

Our response to Rifkin is simple. We seize on his good ideas, like distributed energy and global empathy, while rejecting his bad ones, like distributed capitalism and competing continents. That way, his good ideas can be put to good use, not subverted by loyalty to capitalism’s rulers.


Capitalism’s first hegemon

If you could time travel back to the early era of capitalism and ask 17th century citizens to name the system’s first hegemonic power, their answer might take you by surprise.

And the answer? The United Provinces, as the Netherlands was called in those days.120

During the 17th century the United Provinces founded the first modern share market, dominated world trade, ruled the ocean waves, conquered a vast colonial empire and subordinated rival states through a mix of wars and alliances.

The United Provinces was the imperial hegemon for around one century until fading in the early part of the 18th century. Its decline was due to a combination of internal dissensions and the pressures of commercial and military conflicts with rivals, especially England.

The United Provinces has now mostly slipped from our historical consciousness. Yet the Roman Empire, much more remote from us in historical time and social structure, remains universally known. Why? Because the scale of the United Provinces seems ridiculously small compared with what we see as necessary for today’s hegemon. Size does matter.

Superiority of scale

As the United Provinces declined in relative strength, England became the hegemon-in-waiting.121

A combination of geography, population, technologies, coal, factories, farming, canals, trade, banks, navy and colonies gave England a growing superiority of scale over rivals during the 18th century.

By the mid 19th century its manufacturing strength had earned England the title of “workshop of the world”.

The world hegemony enjoyed by England lasted around one century, similar to the time span of the United Provinces. And the causes of England’s demise were also similar: internal dissensions and the pressures of commercial and military conflicts with rivals, especially Germany.

England came out of World War I (1914-18)122 in a much weakened condition, eclipsed economically by the United States, clearly the new hegemon-in-waiting.123

Rise, dominance, decline, ouster

Now we start to see a repeat pattern. One country rises to world hegemony on the back of economic and military strength that is significantly greater in scale than rival powers.

Its period of global hegemonic dominance lasts a century or so. During this time the hegemon keeps relative order in a fractious world system, thus fostering the process of capital accumulation.

Then begins a period of relative decline caused by a combination of internal rot and external pressures.

Following a turbulent period of transition the old hegemon is ousted as Top Dog. Its place is taken by the hegemon-in-waiting.

A date with Uncle Sam

So when did “Uncle Sam” first become widely recognised as the global hegemon?

Maybe it was 1918, when the United States emerged as the big winner from World War I and was treated by other powers as deal maker at the Treaty of Versailles.124

Or maybe it was 1929, when the US dollar eclipsed sterling as the world’s leading reserve currency.125

Or maybe it was 1935, when European powers looked to United States leadership in standing up to Hitler, and when Washington wouldn’t, nobody else nipped Nazi expansionism in the bud.126

Or maybe it was 1941, when America’s entry into World War II (1939-45)127 was hailed as the beginning of the end for the fascist coalition of Germany, Italy and Japan.128

1918, 1929, 1935, 1941. It’s a judgement call. The important point is that America’s global hegemony will be nearing an end if the same one century time frame holds as true as for the two previous Top Dogs. And if similar causes of decline are eroding US strength.

Poor performance in recent times

A key performance indicator for hegemons is how well they rally the world system against challenges to their supremacy and strategies.

Facing serious crises of profitability, ecology and resources, the US hegemon has done poorly in recent years. Very poorly.

The international financial implosion of 2008 began in Wall Street, undermining US credibility as the arbitrator of neoliberalism.

The US-led bank bailouts bought a breathing space, but only at the cost of greater system instability, open splits with longtime allies (such as Germany) and an erosion of popular legitimacy.

China revved its growth engine in large measure by defying US pressure to revalue the yuan, yet Washington has not retaliated. Why? Beijing owns 10% of US public debt.129 That’s enough currency leverage to bankrupt America if Communist China’s capitalist rulers so chose.130

Since China’s economy would also suffer from any move by Beijing to dump greenbacks, it will remain an implicit threat unless Washington takes extreme action. There are parallels here with the Cold War nuclear standoff between Washington and Moscow. What message does that send?

One of Obama’s election pledges was to lead America out of the climate change denials of the Bush era.

Obama’s actions have shown what his pledge really meant: promote a global pollution market while continuing the Bush policy of protecting US production of coal, the biggest carbon pollutant.

Even to other rich states, this sounds like a mixed message which will be hard to sell, given public sourness with financiers who sucked up bailouts and now look to profit from carbon trading.

Meanwhile, most poor states are in revolt against Washington’s climate strategy, a split with the potential to destabilise the world system.

Control over Middle East oil resources is the lynchpin of US petro-imperialism.

Following George W’s proclamation of “victory” over Iraq in 2003, US troops were soon engulfed in the flames of people’s resistance. Unsure how to respond, the Washington-Pentagon-corporate axis of evil tried three strategies. At first, use more firepower. When that failed, the US began to fund, arm and empower a minority of insurgents while terrorising the rest. After the failure of strategy 2.0 came 3.0: fund, arm and empower all groups of insurgents if they cease fire. Most of the guns went quiet, since effective power was ceded to the insurgents.131

Now, on Obama’s orders, US forces in Afghanistan are acting in ways similar to what delivered humiliation in Iraq.132

In Yemen, southern gateway to the Middle East, a Muslim insurgency in northern provinces and a national liberation uprising in southern provinces threaten the authoritarian rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Washington’s crony. Despite an influx of US money, arms and troops into Yemen, Saleh is on an “ejection seat”, according to Mohamed Hassan, a specialist in geopolitics and the Arab world.133

During February 2010 the leaders of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah convened a war council in Damascus to plan joint counterstrikes if Israel attacked any one of the three parties. The editor of Al Quds al Arabi newspaper says the war council expresses “an unprecedented sense of self-confidence and an unheard-of preparedness for retaliation” against Israel, America’s ferocious ally in the Middle East.134

The net result of these US setbacks is an erosion of Washington’s power across the Middle East, allowing Turkey and Iran to gain ground.135

Collapse of ‘New American Century’