Introduction by Croakey: As the Prime Minister continues to dodge effective climate action despite heavy pressure from world leaders, a senior academic has called for fundamental systemic change to address the underlying drivers of the climate crisis.
As well as nationalisation to enable nation building and “socialisation” of essential industries and services, such as finance, housing and manufacturing, Professor Rob White has called for governance that is “public, open, cooperative and democratic”.
“…you can’t achieve transformation without fundamentally changing the ownership structure of the present political economy,” he writes below.
White is Distinguished Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania and co-author of the recent release, The Extinction Curve (Emerald Publishing, 2021).
Rob White writes:
The climate endgame that we face, brought upon us by an endless pursuit of growth through capitalism and globalisation, is the key dilemma of our age. We know from the science what the problem is and how to contain global warming. The political challenge is how to get there.
The current trends in regards global warming are unequivocal. The planet is heating up at an unprecedented rate. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, despite scientific warnings and UN-oriented political commitments, and the main cause continues to be fossil fuel emissions from energy use and industry.
We also know that every delay in cutting carbon emissions means deeper cuts are needed to put us on the pathway to limit global warming. In effect, we are running out of time.
Science-based recommendations for action are clear. They include renewable energy electricity, coal phase-out, and decarbonising transport and industry. So, we know the answer to the problem of climate change.
Yet, capitalism is an authoritarian economic system, one where the privatised control and appropriation of socialised production is imposed from above. It doesn’t flow from below.
This authoritarianism is grounded in private ownership of the means of production (a small number get to decide what is produced and how, and for whom), and evident in greater inequality (the huge disparities between the billionaires at the top and the rest of us) and the intensified exploitation of nature and humans (paradoxically, because profit rates are threatened due to low wages and scarcity of natural resources).
This must change.
The shortfalls of authoritarian capitalism are exemplified by the limitations in the COVID-19 pandemic response and the systemic failures to address climate change.
The conception, execution and social purposes of our collective labour needs to be in our hands, as well as those of the young, the elderly, the infirm, and the incapacitated who also have a stake in how social needs should be met.
This can only really be achieved through the full socialisation of corporate enterprise and by greater democratisation of our social institutions.
In the advanced economies, the state carries an economic weight comparable to or exceeding that of even the largest transnational corporations. The enduring centrality of the state is particularly evident in conditions of crisis.
However, in both past financial and current COVID-19 induced economic crises, the question of whose state it really is, gets revealed. Whether it is bailing out billionaires, corporate tax-breaks, rescuing the worst climate vandals like the oil and gas companies, or printing money, neoliberal governments will do ‘whatever it takes’ to re-start accumulation.
Yet, in an ideal economy, production is for social need. For this, we need the state to be ‘our’ state. And for this, we need transformational nationalisation. This refers to the state taking command of the central levers of the economy – taking the private capital that owns and controls these levers and putting them into public hands.
This form of nationalisation incorporates ‘nation building’ (such as infrastructure projects) and ‘socialisation’ of essential industries and services (such as finance, housing and manufacturing).
Support for this kind of initiative is reflected in public support for job-related and health-related public measures during COVID-19. It is also reflected in opinion polls that consistently show widespread support for institutions such as public health and national public broadcasters.
Pillars of life
The six pillars of social life – water, air, food, energy, shelter and security – are of principal importance when it comes to addressing the structural vulnerability and insecurity of the majority population.
However, existing state responses to crisis reflect and reinforce existing class divisions. Personal recovery gets privatised, jobs disappear, small businesses don’t re-emerge, and communities struggle or fail altogether.
What we need is the six pillars to be guaranteed as a principled condition of existence for everyone. Decisions about these are too important to be left in private hands (the billionaires) or secretive state (bureaucrats and self-serving politicians): governance must be public, open, cooperative and democratic.
Central to transformation is securing the core fundamentals of social life, in particular the food retail giants and distribution networks, water and energy companies, and finance capital within the housing sector, including the large landlords. As environmental activists might put it, the four elements – earth, air, water and sun (energy) – constitute ‘the commons’ that needs to be put into democratic hands.
It must also include nationalisation of coal and related industries, and provision of an economically secure, ecological sustainable transition for the workers and communities historically dependent upon those industries.
People want change. We have the innovative skills and knowledge to foster this (i.e., ecologically benign technologies and techniques), and the desire for a better ‘home’ (we like Planet A). The barriers relate directly to class interests and capitalist domination.
The equation is simple – you can’t achieve transformation without fundamentally changing the ownership structure of the present political economy.
Rob White is Distinguished Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania and author with John van der Velden of The Extinction Curve (Emerald Publishing, 2021).
Previously at Croakey: Timely new book puts the spotlight on carbon criminals
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