27 May 2020
A tragic opportunity
The Covid-19 pandemic has already been a real tragedy for tens of thousands of UK individuals and their families. And, as information slowly emerges, it is clearly very much a neoliberal tragedy.
Since 2010, successive Tory governments - & the Tory-LibDem coalition - have deliberately underfunded our NHS, both as part of their austerity, and as steps to weaken it for further stealth privatisation. And, even though ‘Exercise Cygnus’ in 2016 showed just how unprepared our NHS was for a huge pandemic - which was seen as a much greater threat to UK citizens than terrorism - May and Johnson both ignored requests to increase the number of ICU beds and to replenish stocks of in-date PPE.
More recently, Johnson and his government have repeatedly lied about having sufficient - and safe - stocks of PPE for frontline health and social care workers; and have failed to introduce, as constantly urged to do so by the WHO, a ‘Test, Trace and Isolate’ strategy. All these deliberate failures to act in the right ways, at the right times, have resulted in the UK having the highest number of deaths in Europe, and the second highest in the world.
Thus it will now be much harder for the supporters of, and the apologists for, the neoliberal system to argue that the UK was, pre-Covid-19, an exemplar of social care and economic equality. Consequently, in some ways, this tragic crisis is also an opportunity for change, as it will be much easier to make the case that the pre-Covid system essentially best-served the interests of the 1% alone.
However, a word of warning: it is not just an opportunity for radical progressives to push for fundamental changes to this failing and grossly-unequal system - it will also be an opportunity, in the immediate aftermath, for those on the other side of the barricades to push forward with their agenda.
And this is an opportunity they are already planning to take advantage of: hence recent comments, from various rightwing quarters, about the need to impose pay freezes on public sector employees; to “set aside” the National Minimum Wage and “restrictive” legislation regarding employee and environmental protections; and the need for more austerity to re-coup the costs of this pandemic.
For those who doubt that the ‘other side’ will act in this way post-lockdown, try reading Naomi Klein’s 2014 book about what she calls ‘Disaster Capitalism’:
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2014
The rapid spread of this Coronavirus across the world has underlined once more, in a very deadly way, just how such crises have important global causes, dimensions and impacts - in a similar but more graphic way than the 2008 banking crisis did.
George Orwell, in the journal Partisan Review, July-August 1947
In the same way, this pandemic has also shown the importance of global solutions - and, for those who have not forgotten the ever-worsening twin crises of global warming and biodiversity loss, it is even more clear now how, ultimately, such crises will only be fully solved on a global, international, basis. As Brexit looms, a useful starting platform would be that of Europe.
George Orwell recognised that fascism and Nazi Germany would not truly be defeated by military means alone - he also argued that there needed to be fundamental economic and social reforms to end the inequalities and injustices of pre-war Europe. As History confirms, in 1945, the majority of voters in the UK and elsewhere saw the end of the war as an opportunity to transform their societies into various types of welfare capitalism - a state of affairs that lasted till the end of the 1970s, when neoliberalism began to roll back those gains.
The idea of a Socialist United States of Europe was first raised, as early as September 1914, by Leon Trotsky, in his The War and the International, at the start of WWI. That call was made in the belief that, after the end of the war, it would be necessary to make a clean break with the old order’s ‘business as usual’ that had led to the horrors of war; and to move the whole of Europe on to a new and better future.
It is vital that the current crisis, however tragic, is seen as an opportunity for a positive response, in some ways comparable to those presented by the two world wars of the last century.
Even more than the 2008 banking crisis, Covid-19 is sapping the foundations of the rotten neoliberal ‘order’ - not just financially, but also politically, with many now seeing the glimpse of a better way of doing things. And that creating another, better, world IS possible - if the political will is there. Some shapes of this better world which have emerged in the lockdown - such as cleaner air, more free time, working from home, etc. - point the way to the changes we need to make.
As many are increasingly arguing, the Climate Emergency will, ultimately, only be tackled on a global basis - which is why ecosocialists are committed to internationalism. Thus, as an important first step, Trotsky and George Orwell’s slogans need to be transformed into a call for a United Ecosocialist States of Europe.
The Extreme Centre
The urgent need for such a political entity from Tariq Ali’s book, The Extreme Centre:
Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre, 2015
As well as warning about the various threats to democracy, and to the living standards of the 99%, posed by the rise of neoliberalism, this book deals with the political dangers posed by what Tariq Ali calls the pro-neoliberal ‘Extreme Centre’.
Prior to 2015, the political situation in the UK was dominated by main parties that, to different degrees, were united in offering to serve neoliberal interests - a situation described by Tariq Ali as one of:
“an extreme centre, a trilateral monolith, made up of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition plus Labour.” (p.17).
For almost 5 years, from 2015-20, that “trilateral monolith” was broken up by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and the Labour Party’s consequent moves away from Blairite ‘New’ Labour, pro-neoliberal, positions.
But, with Jeremy Corbyn no longer Leader, and with Keir Starmer now in his place, it looks possible that much of the Corbyn Project will now be rolled back if, as some fear, Keir Starmer tries to move the Labour Party back to some kind of an opportunistic ‘Centre’ position.
If such a development were to take place, this would be a political and human tragedy because events since 1979 have shown, with increasingly-severe impacts on the 99%, that a return to any tri-partite ‘Extreme Centre’ consensus on maintaining neoliberalism will result in ever-more suffering.
The neoliberal elites, protected and enabled by the ‘Extreme Centre’, are still both immensely wealthy and powerful - and forces of radical opposition are still small and often disunited. But, even if the Labour Party starts to drift back to that ‘Extreme Centre’, those who form the core of this radical opposition - in the Labour Party, in the Green Party, and elsewhere - are the only hope of stopping and reversing capitalism’s destructive activities.
Ever since the 1970s, and the first Earth Day, History has shown time and time again that, ultimately, market-based ecological ‘solutions’ haven’t and won’t stop the crisis. In fact, to use a phrase of Walter Benjamin’s, neoliberalism is driving the world “into the abyss”.
Hence the urgent need to move, as quickly as possible, to an ecosocialist future - as Michael Löwy said in Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (2015):
“Ecosocialism is a political current based on an essential insight: that preserving the ecological equilibrium of the planet and therefore an environment favourable to living species, including ours, is incompatible with the expansive and destructive logic of the capitalist system.” (p.vii).
Parties of the ‘Extreme Centre’ will never stop that destructive ‘logic’.
No Going Back!
No Going Back
Even if, under Keir Starmer, Labour do win the next election by adopting a more ‘centre’ position, that won’t save us from the Climate Emergency - or solve the other pressing problems.
Thus it’s imperative to make a clear political break from all those who belong to that ‘Extreme Centre’. For those who are still unconvinced about the need to make rapid moves towards ecosocialism, it’s useful to remember what James Hansen said in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren (2011):
“Planet Earth,…the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shore-lines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystalized only in the past few years. We now have clear evidence of the crisis, … The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not just the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself - and the timetable is shorter than we thought.” (p.ix)
Hence the importance of Extinction Rebellion’s argument that, post-lockdown, there can be ‘No Going Back’ to the failed and rotten system we’ve put up with for the past 40 years. A system so broken that it’s:
pushed millions into dependency on foodbanks - including many who are in employment, such as the nurses this government now wants to ‘reward’ for their Covid-19 sacrifices with another pay freeze
forced thousands into rough-sleeping, via the Bedroom Tax and insufficient affordable properties for rent
created, for the first time in over 100 years, a society in which life expectancy has stalled - and, for women in poorer areas, has actually declined
consistently refused to take the steps necessary for protecting UK citizens from the growing threats from global warming.
Yet this awful health tragedy has shown - far more clearly than the financial crisis of 2008 - the gross inequalities existing in the UK. It has also shown how many of these problems can be tackled: for example, at present, rough-sleeping has been almost eliminated, overnight.
When we eventually come out of this pandemic, bruised and battered, what we must not do is attempt to ‘re-adjust’ ourselves to the so-called ‘normality’ of neoliberalism. In preparation for the tasks ahead, we should be watching Ken Loach’s excellent documentary, The Spirit of 45, which shows how the WWII generations voted overwhelmingly for a better world in May 1945 - and made great steps towards achieving that better world, which lasted through the 1950s & 1960s, only to fall back after the oil crisis of 1973; and then, under Thatcher’s neoliberalism, suffer a fatal blow.
In particular, it’s vital to grasp that the human tragedies, social disruptions and financial costs of this pandemic are just a taste of the chaos and human suffering to come, as the impacts of the worsening Climate Emergency increase in severity.
At this month’s virtual Hay Festival, Mark Lynas will be talking about his new book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency:
Mark Lynas, Our Final Warning, 2020
His book (which is an even-more frightening update of his 2007 book) sets out, in stages of 1C degree, all the various scenarios for global warming impacts - from a 1C increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels (where we are now already); to those which would accompany a rise of 6C (which some climate scientists and the IPCC are now warning is on the cards by the end of this century, if there are no immediate and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions).
With the impacts of unchecked global warming going to be so much worse than those of this current pandemic, a ‘middle/liberal/centre’ position - whether pro-neoliberal, or half-way between neoliberalism and ecosocialism - is no longer tenable.
A Red-Green United Front
“Another world IS Possible!” But, to get that other world, we need to recognise that the old order’s ‘business as usual’ has led us to the brink of an abyss - if not ended, it will push us and the planet over the edge. Instead, we need to be pushing for a completely new content for social life - giving real dignity to health & social care workers, and to all other workers - and for serious measures to cut carbon emissions.
In the present circumstances, this is going to need an active realignment of radical forces which are prepared to work together for common goals.
On paper, political groups such as RedGreen Labour, the Green Left, Left Unity and Socialist Resistance - and organisations such as Another Europe, War on Want, Global Justice Now and DiEM25 have much more in common than what divides them.
Only such an active Red-Green Coalition of Radicals - which breaks with ‘business as usual’ and unites with like-minded people - can save us. Fortunately, there is a real basis for meaningful co-operation and joint campaigning between these groups. Consequently, History won’t forgive us if we continue to sit in our separate ‘camps’ and let this opportunity pass by.
It’s not a question - certainly not at this stage - of merging to form a new party. It is completely understandable that many of those in the Labour Party - though disappointed by the outcome of the recent leadership elections - are deciding to remain members, in order to resist the dropping of the Corbynite policy programme.
The same holds true for those in the Green Party (especially those in Green Left) who, despite concerns over last December’s pact with the LibDems, remain to resist any shift away from the party’s commendable radical commitments to social and economic justice - something the right of the party has never been comfortable with.
Though, of course, as I’ve found out, those who do abandon old political loyalties and do decide to leave Labour or the Greens, will find a very warm welcome in Left Unity!
In the present circumstances, the important thing is to avoid the bitterness and narrow sectarian party political divisions and separations which are sometimes a feature on the left of the political spectrum! There’s far too much at stake to hold back because of political loyalties which are too narrow to take us forward. It makes no political sense to operate separately anymore - if it ever did.
Zoom gives us a wonderful chance to start joint discussions and planning, so that we can ‘hit the ground running’ once the lockdown ends. A useful first step, locally, would be to set up a Red-Green North Cumbria group, in which we could discuss the way forward on a wide range of issues and campaigns over the coming months.
History tends to give only fleeting opportunities for fundamental change - if they are missed, the usual outcome is increased reaction. The past 40 years - in particular, the last decade - has shown only too clearly what kind of reaction can be expected if we let this opportunity slip from our grasp.
Ideally, what’s needed is an ecosocialist and internationalist Red-Green Coalition of Radicals - like the Zimmerwald Movement which developed in 1915-16 before the crisis of WWI ended. Referring again to Michael Löwy (2015):
“The central premise of ecosocialism, already suggested by the term itself, is that nonecological socialism is a dead end and a nonsocialist ecology cannot confront the present ecological crisis.” (p.xi)
Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917.