How can we get system change?

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Extinction_Rebellion_protests_in_London_17.jpg

Climate activists in London during the XR International Rebellion in April

This year has seen a global movement in response to climate crisis. Lewis Nielsen asks how that can lead to deeper change.

Will 2019 go down as a year of mass revolt? Perhaps it is too early to say, but we can now add Chile, Catalonia and Lebanon to the likes of Hong Kong, Sudan and Algeria as places that have been rocked by mass protests this year. A notable feature of the protests has been a generalisation from an initial trigger — a WhatsApp tax or metro fare hike — into demanding much wider change.

Certainly 2019 has been the year that people have taken to the streets demanding action on climate change. In August 2018 Greta Thunberg was an unknown teenager in Sweden who began a solitary protest outside the Swedish parliament. By September 2019 she was joined by 7 million others worldwide in the first global climate strike, with workers joining students who had been protesting on Fridays around the world for months. And a month later Extinction Rebellion’s international uprising took place in 60 countries, with the centre of London shut down for at least a week for the second time this year.

In the past discussion around the climate crisis could turn to individual solutions such as your diet or choices as a consumer. Not anymore. A feature of both the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion is that they also call for wider change and point the finger of blame at those in power, from the 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of global emissions to the politicians who allow them to continue to do so unchecked. Whatever your view on some of the tactics, it is clear that the recent climate protests mark a shift towards mass collective action in the form of walkouts or protest camps. In particular the call from school strikers for workers to join them is a radical one that points towards class politics.

“System change not climate change” has been a defining slogan on these protests, particularly given that they come at a time when we are seeing a resurgence of socialist ideas. In October this year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) endorsed Bernie Sanders’ nomination for US President to a crowd of 26,000 in New York, saying it was “far larger than a presidential campaign. This is really about creating a mass movement, a multiracial mass movement of working class Americans.” AOC — now considered one of the most popular and influential politicians in the US — is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and is a key advocate of the Green New Deal, a demand which initially came out of the Sunrise Movement in the US.

Here in Britain it can sometimes feel as if Jeremy Corbyn is pegged back by the Labour right and Brexit paralysis. However, it is worth remembering that at Labour Party conference in September the membership voted for policies including a Green New Deal, a four-day working week and the extension of freedom of movement. This suggests that the majority of Labour’s 500,000 members still support the radical socialist ideas that defined Corbynism in the leadership election of 2015 and general election of 2017. There’s hope that a radical election campaign — with a possible national postal strike thrown in -—could reinvigorate the insurgent feeling.

So we are at an exciting time where we see mass protests that can quickly generalise to demanding systemic change alongside a resurgent interest in ideas that challenge the worst aspects of capitalism, if not the system itself. In this context, what would system change look like?

Popularise

A Green New Deal would be a big step forward. The original call for a GND with “a ten year national mobilisation” is a radical one — decarbonisation by 2030, green jobs, local involvement in planning as well as high quality healthcare, housing and education. It can help popularise the idea of putting class demands at the heart of climate ones.

The question is how to win these changes. Sensing the anger from below, some politicians with a less radical message have been keen to embrace the GND in an attempt to water it down. So in XR’s recent book This Is Not A Drill, MP Clive Lewis argues that a GND would include working with the Bank of England and finance sector to stop business as usual and “mobilise financial resources to support the most urgent of society’s missions”. But the problem is that for the banks and companies, if business as usual means short term profits, the longer term catastrophe is not heeded.

The whole infrastructure of capitalism is built on fossil fuels. It is physically possible to make a switch to renewable energy, but it would mean energy companies writing off their huge sunken investments in coal, oil and gas. And these investments are growing as politicians do nothing to challenge them — in the three years from 2010 to 2012, over two and a half times more coal capacity was added than in the whole of the 1990s. Writing off these investments is critical in the battle to stop climate change, but it would come at a huge cost to the firms involved.

In the 1930s the banks and bosses were prepared to accept President Roosevelt’s New Deal of state intervention and infrastructure projects as a way of pulling the economy out of the Great Depression. They will not accept a complete economic overhaul that rids us off fossil fuels in less than ten years.

Therefore while every attempt to limit the power of fossil fuel capital should be supported, the nature of capitalism means the problem is systemic and requires a systemic solution. XR is right when it says “this is an emergency”. The standout figure from the IPCC report last year was 12 years to save the planet, but that does not account for the fact that climate change is happening now, not in the future.

The urgency of the situation means a duel energy system or a greener capitalism is not enough. It requires a radical socialist transformation of society that doesn’t just put checks and balances on what the fossil fuel industry can do, but replaces production for profit with production for need where ordinary people have a democratic say in how to run a sustainable society. Winning such a change inevitably means confronting the banks and corporations, and therefore a movement that demands climate justice but also social, economic and political control.

Deepening the movement

That is why the recent global protests are so important both in scale and character. The climate strikes have put the question of mobilisation on the street front and centre, and have pointed to deepening the movement into the workplaces. At the same time the protests in Lebanon, Chile, Sudan and elsewhere have put the question of revolution back on the agenda.

And the biggest argument for revolution right now is that capitalism creates irreversible climate chaos. This isn’t about just waiting for the revolution to happen. Every revolt and victory against the fossil polluters and their neoliberal system — from a ban on fracking to more climate jobs — is one worth fighting for and celebrating. But we can also link these struggles to a wider generalisation that capitalism is broken and a danger to us all, and that another world is possible