Speaker: Frederik Blauwhof
Ecosocialist Perspectives for Left Organising
I am Frederik Blauwhof, currently working on labour and economic policy for in the German federal parliament for the left party DIE LINKE.
Previously I have also worked on environmental, transport and energy policy. I also am an activist in my local DIE LINKE branch in Berlin-Neukölln, a district with a population just under Malmös.
Forgive me for adopting a direct, political tone, but I think we are going through interesting but worrying times. Even though global crises like the ones we are discussing at this conference are becoming ever more pressing, Europe and indeed the world increasingly seem to lose sight of the bigger picture and the challenges that we should long since have started to tackle.
To the contrary, we are faced with small-minded nationalism, continued neoliberal dominance, mainstream politics that shifts ever more to the right, the steady decline of European social democracy still wedded to Blairism. All the while the populist right and fascist movements build themselves up by offering racism as a solution to real social problems in a way unimaginable in the 90s.
So why be an „ecosocialist“?
I'm sure we here can all agree that it is high time to take very seriously the multitude facets of ecological devastation of our planet. From climate change, rampant desertification, the incessant plundering of the worlds finite resources, overfishing and dead zones in the oceans, deforestation and pollution. The list goes on.
Climate change alone requires immediate radical global action, irrespective and in contradiction of corporate interests.
Even if one assumes runaway climate change can be avoided at a level of up to 450 ppm CO2, that leaves us with about 10 years for a 50% reduction of global emissions and 25 years for a reduction of 90%+. Such targets are way off the political horizon and seem nigh impossible to meet even with coordinated and worldwide state intervention. In this time span, some of the cars sold right now will still be in use, infrastructure projects planned now will still be under construction.
So I think it is high time for us to admit that capitalism is not capable of respecting planetary limits.
Capitalism, by which I mean our economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and wage labour, most fundamental principle, the accumulation and maximization of profit, is what underlies both capitalisms need for economic growth as well as its tendency to crisis.
An economy without growth would tend to a profit rate of zero, which would undermine the incentive of capital owners to invest and precipitate financial and economic crisis.
In fact, the dazzling amount of capital in circulation constantly looking for profit opportunities creates a constant pressure for deepening of and intensifying of market forces. The sheer amount of financial capital in the form of bonds, stocks, options, swaps and so forth has surpassed the worlds GDP many times over. All of that capital is looking to make a good interest, dividend, or share price increase.
Although the formation of bubbles like inflated derivatives markets, stock market, credit or real estate bubbles tend to temporarily lessen this pressure by increasing virtual values, such bubbles only pile on the pressure on the real economy in the long run. After all, the dividends paid to stockholders, the rents paid to landlords or the interest paid to creditors must in the end to be produced somewhere by someone creating goods or services.
This causes corporations to act like “externalization machines”, programmed to externalize costs and internalize profits, not to offer solutions to collective problems.
This is why capitalism is programmed not to respect planetary limits: to pollution, to resource use, to cycles of life in ecosystems. It’s not just that capitalism is dependent on growth, but that this system has built a parasitic relation to our natural environment.
Regulation is possible but will always be evaded, undermined, rolled back, as we have seen with the advances made through the new deal in the US or the cutbacks of the welfare state in Europe.
What's more, the state in capitalist society is also structurally dependent on capital accumulation and therefore growth in several ways. Firstly, the state depends on an investment climate conducive to profitability for tax income. Second, government debt creates pressures on governments to help foster GDP growth. Furthermore, there has historically been systematic entanglement of state institutions with business on the institutional as well as personal levels. Additionally, state owned companies can act like capitalist corporations in their own right. Vattenfall is a case in point, which I will come to in a minute.)
Although it might be easier for some to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism, we urgently need to develop an economy that respects ecological limits.
Society’s metabolism needs to be organized along the lines of closed loop systems, not one way street of resource to product to waste. We need to completely overhaul the economic infrastructure, or more precisely technology in Marx’ sense of the word, which involves both the organisation of the labour process, as well as the machines and resources used.
We need to go from private, motorized transportation to public or non-motorized transportation, from goods transport by lorry and vans to freight transport by rail and waterways,
from factory farming and monoculture to ecological, no till farming and low intensity livestock rearing.
We need to go from fossil fuel and nuclear electricity and fossil liquid fuels to decentralized renewable energy production.
Instead of cheap, disposable mass consumer goods transported around the world we need to move to durable products that are easily repairable and as bio disposable or recyclable as possible.
We need products that are designed “cradle to cradle”, phasing out rare earth metals and other elements that are difficult or impossible to replace.
And so on and so on.
These shifts are all diametrically opposed to the needs of capital accumulation, which depends on ever larger markets for ever more products that are sold at an ever increasing rate.
That means: decommodification, taking use values out of the process of commodity production and market valorization. Which means collectivizing production, transportation and distribution of goods and services. Moving away from capitalist relations of production and towards a socialist economy based on workplace democracy and democratic, bottom-up planning.
This theoretical perspective, however necessary, is useless without a corresponding political practice.
Wehat is needed is a class politics, one oriented on the very real class struggle taking place in society. I like to use Rosa Luxemburgs' term of revolutionary realpolitik.
By this I mean left organization that makes a good effort to analyze the current situation, the balance of forces in society, the struggles taking place and the possibilities of raising struggles to a higher level.
We also need a left politics that is not primarily oriented on parliaments or NGO-style media campaigns but on building the self-confidence and the self-activity of the 99% or the widely defined working class: regular employees and precarious workers, but also the big majority of self-employed, the unemployed, students, pensioners.
That means building a left movement which is involved and rooted in social movements as well as ecological movements and labour struggles. The left we need to build should address the considered interest of the widely defined working class as a whole, and integrate ecological perspectives and demands into these politics.
In my neighborhood in Berlin, with just slightly less inhabitants than Malmö, we have had this perspective in the left party DIE LINKE for over 10 years. We have played a constructive part in the many major movements in the city and the district, from anti-racist initiatives to tenants movements. We support strikes whether in the hospital, on the S-Bahn regional trains, daycare centres or retail stores, or campaigns to stop investors from plastering over valuable ecosystems and recreational space on the former airport Tempelhof to build even more luxury apartments.
With a clear anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist and ecological perspective, we went from 70 members in the neighborhood in 2007 to 550 now. Since this year, our branch has seven different action groups, who support this or that campaign, mobilize for demonstrations, organize reading groups and do regular paper stalls and meetings. During election times, our neighborhood paper has a circulation of around 35.000, over one tenth of the population.
Our share of the vote in the district council went from 5,4% in 2006 to 18,3% in 2016. Current polls put us between 19 and 22%. In the more dense, metropolitan half of the neighborhood, we are the biggest party with a vote share at over 30%.
The extreme right, notably, is losing votes, contrary to the national trend.
This has enabled us also to fight better for ecological goals, whether mobilizing to block (Vattenfalls) coal plants in the Berlin periphery and in Saxony, demonstrating for peace and fair world trade relations at the G20 in Hamburg, campaigning against the pollution of our neighborhood through fine dust, car exhausts and noise or for more bicycle lanes.
In such campaigns, we are always careful to put ecological demands in the context of the wider interests of working people:
oTenants movement and energetic renovation – Landlors using it as a tool to sweep the house clean and raise prices.
oTempelhofer Feld: Ecology and recreation vs. property speculation and higher rents
oEnergy grid referendum: Monopolist controlling the electricity grid vs. democratic control of our electricity system, no price rises for working people!
oCoal ban, retooling the arms and car industry: social plan, guaranteed income and reschooling for workers in those industries
oFree public transport vs. petrol taxes
If we’re supposed to stand a chance realising the system change we need, we need to actively but patiently build our own power, where we work and where we live.
“Workers of the world unite, we nothing to lose but our planet!"