Collective Action

Speech for CND Diversification event, 25 March 2017. Video here.

I’ve been asked to talk about the political angle of diversification. So I’m going to cover the stuff you’re probably expecting, about governments and parties and the Scottish independence debate. But what we need to be thinking about is much more fundamental. So I’m going to get back to some first principles, and try to set our local and national issues into a wider context.

I’m a sociologist by trade, and we like to talk about understanding biography and history within social structures. C. Wright Mills came up with that phrase in the 1950s. Each of us makes choices as we move through life, but our choices are constrained by our circumstances. Each of us has personal troubles in our lives, but when thousands of people struggle with the same troubles, they become public issues, and you can only understand them by looking at wider social patterns.

Here in Aberdeen, one person losing their job is a personal trouble. But when thousands of people lose their jobs it’s a public issue. In this case we know the reason: the oil price collapsed and the bosses decided to slow down operations. Most of the people affected had no say in this decision – and yet it’s their lives thrown into chaos.

Which brings us to the question of politics. Ultimately, when we talk about politics we’re talking about power. We’re talking about the ability to make decisions that affect people’s lives, or the ability to bend the rules and do things that are usually out of bounds, like avoiding tax or killing civilians.

When most people hear the word politics, they think of mainstream representative democracy. Posh white men in suits, bickering with each other somewhere far away. Nothing to do with me.

Yes, the strings are pulled by politicians – but also by giant corporations, banks, media firms. Yes, it’s about elections and laws and the sorts of things you hear on the nightly news. But the political dimension of power runs through every part of our lives.

Our air and water are clean – or not – because of political decisions. The way that food is produced and distributed. Our health, our jobs, our clothing, our transport. These are all influenced by what has come before, and by what’s happening now. Biography and history within social structures.

Often we only notice the political dimension of our lives when there’s conflict and crisis, when personal troubles become public issues. Food becomes political when millions of people can’t afford to eat. The NHS becomes political when junior doctors are forced to go on strike. Immigration becomes political when families are torn apart because of visa restrictions.

Whether we agree with the structures of power or not, they affect our lives.

In the context of diversification, the power to decide energy policy is reserved to Westminster, where investment in renewables will decrease by 95% between 2016 and 2020 (reference). Meanwhile, Westminster has increased tax breaks and other subsidies to the oil and gas industry – we are the only G7 country to do this, despite pledging in 2009 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies (reference).

But here in the northeast, mainstream politicians are still shouting for more investment in oil and gas. Many of them accept that we need to cut our carbon emissions and move to renewable energy. But when faced with the short-term pressures of job losses and angry constituents, the most creative solution they can think of is to throw more money at a dying industry.

Now, some people in this room will say that we can’t build a strong renewables industry without standing on the broad shoulders of the UK. Some will say that we can’t do it without breaking free from Westminster.

Both of these arguments are flawed – and it comes down to the issue of power.

In my view, we cannot wean ourselves off fossil fuels while decisions about energy are made in Westminster, regardless of which party is in power. For almost forty years, the UK government has been committed to economic growth at any cost. It’s also deeply tied up with the finance industry, who are lobbying to suck every last bit of profit from the north sea. A Scottish renewables sector is a direct threat to some extremely powerful interests, and they’ll do everything they can to block and delay our progress.

However, Scottish independence doesn’t guarantee a magical, fossil-free future. The same powerful interests at work in Westminster don’t stop at the border. Whether we’re looking at the politicians who beg for more oil subsidies or the ones who abstained on the vote to ban fracking, it’s clear that we’ll have our work cut out for us, even post-independence.

But I still think independence is an important first step. Because it gives us something like a fresh start, with space for other voices to define priorities.

Because domination and coercion are not the only kinds of power. There’s also the power to influence, to inspire, to shift the terms of the debate and open up new possibilities. And that is the role of both movement politics and left-wing parties: we may not be big players, but we’ve been able to make a difference by dragging things to the left.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not enough.

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis by tinkering at the edges and trying to find space for social change inside the structures we already have.

We live in a system that judges politicians’ success by how well they manage ‘the economy’ – which translates to short term GDP growth. It’s the ideology of the cancer cell.

We live in a system that wants to apply the logic of markets to every aspect of our lives, to let every decision be driven by self-interest.

We live in a system that is sacrificing our ecosystems, our communities, our health and our lives on the altar of short-term profit.

Capitalism is the problem.

Even if we shift to 100% renewable energy tomorrow, even if we leave the oil in the ground and stop manufacturing weapons, staying within the confines of capitalism means that some new crisis will emerge.

Exploitation is in the DNA of capitalism. It’s incapable of ignoring an opportunity for profit.

My dog rolled in shit last week. It’s annoying, but I can’t get angry with her. She’s a dog. It’s in her nature. When she finds some fox poo in the woods, she has an urge to roll in it. I can’t expect her to ignore that urge on her own – but I can clean up the mess afterwards, and I can intervene to prevent her from indulging. When I see her approaching some shit, I call her away and put her on the lead. She’ll whine and pull, but ultimately I have the authority to prevent her rolling in shit.

This is the only legitimate purpose for the state. Capitalism exists to make profit by exploiting people and ecosystems. Until we come up with something better, the state needs to intervene and enforce some limits. Sustainable capitalism is a myth. It’s like expecting my dog to stroll by a pile of fox poo without diving in.

We all know about Adam Smith’s invisible hand – less well-known is his call for prudent regulation by the state. He could see that capitalism can’t control itself, and he recognised the need for a democratic force to keep it in check.

So in the context of what we’re talking about today, that means subsidising renewable energy, limiting the fossil fuel economy, and ending the arms trade. It’s a tall order.

And it’s unlikely – possible, but unlikely – that corporate executives will have a sudden change of heart and start making better choices.

It’s also unlikely that mainstream political parties will suddenly abandon their big donors and pursue an agenda of real sustainability and radical social change. It’s too risky for them.

So what do we do?

Some people are interested in lifestyle based solutions to climate change. Of course we all need to recycle and eat less meat. But individual consumer choices make almost no difference to the wider systems that that we’re trying to change. The idea of personal troubles and public issues can be applied here – one person putting solar panels on their home is a wonderful personal choice. But when all new-build homes are required to have solar panels, you’re dealing with a positive public issue.

Focusing our energy on individual choices is not a good strategy for systemic change. It can even be counterproductive – the best way to lose support is to make people feel guilty about their choices.

So we need collective action to solve the problems we face.

Some people want to change mainstream parties from within, and that’s a legitimate choice – but I’m not sure how effective it can be.

For me, mass movements, pressure groups, real grassroots community groups, and alternative political parties are best tools we’ve got. We can’t call the shots, but we can build momentum and apply pressure. We can keep important issues on the agenda and keep calling for radical change. We can connect in solidarity with others around the world and find global solutions to global problems.

For a long time, I resisted joining a political party – I have always been an activist, not a politician. I don’t want to promote a hierarchical political system.

But I’ve come to realise that political parties have a certain kind of legitimacy, and that’s a tool I’m willing to use, to get access to a wider stage. It’s not a tool for everyone – but I would argue that everyone who wants social change needs to engage in some kind collective action.

At the moment, the mainstream parties and corporate leaders want everyone to accept capitalism’s mess and clean up after it. Not just the ecological mess, but also the social mess – inequality, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, ill health, despair.

It’s a mess can’t be washed away in the bathtub. But I would argue that we can provide the harness and the lead to start to bring capitalism under control – at least until we transition into something better.

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