A New Normal: Building an ecological society beyond Capitalism

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It is clear to many that the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, has been little more than a political pantomime. A 200 strong cast of world leaders and billionaire celebrities met together over two weeks in November, deploying doomsday rhetoric in their efforts to camouflage the creeping corporate take-over of the climate agenda. The billionaire class, and many of the leaders from the global north who travelled to Glasgowlast month, saw COP26 as the perfect moment to inject the neoliberal capitalist system with a new lease of life in the wake of Covid-19. 

Surveying the speeches and corporate sponsorship of the conference it’s clear that the international financial system now regards the worsening climate crisis as an opportunity to promote market based solutions at the expense of genuine climate mitigation. 

Indeed, offering the billionaire class, such as Jeff Bezos, a platform at COP26 to throw breadcrumbs at the climate emergency illustrates the failure of world leaders to recognise the fact that it is global capitalism, with its imperative for capital accumulation, that is creating the conditions for earth’s sixth mass extinction event. 

The Covid19 pandemic meanwhile has alerted the world to the increasing risk of the spread of zoonotic diseases, resulting from the economic destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and the interface of this with agribusiness and global commodity chains.

Worryingly however mainstream voices remain deaf to the links between our political and economic existence and the natural world. Despite the warnings, and there have been plenty in recent years, actions to prepare for such a crisis were, as Noam Chomsky described recently, “barred by the cruel imperatives of an economic order in which there is no profit in preventing a future catastrophe.” 

This ‘business as usual’ mentality is blinding us to the fact that our political and economic order - extractive capitalism - is by its ecologically destructive nature, interwoven with the natural world. In fact it is this toxic fusion of global capitalism and eco-colonialism that is increasing both the occurrences of epidemiological threats and hastening the destructive collapse of the ‘Capitalocene’. 

The latest UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report screams at us that the world is on a cliff edge. We are staring at  irreversible destruction if drastic action is not taken now. Significantly, in a leaked portion of the IPCC report we are given warning by the UN panel that capitalism is “an unsustainable system.” 

So let there be no doubt, the only path that avoids climate catastrophe is an urgent, and vast transformation of production and consumption systems across the globe in keeping with the principles of a ‘just-transition’ away from the deepening economic stagnation, financialisation, and monopolisation of 21st century ecocidal capitalism. 

It is time to face the reality of our situation: the human race will not survive if capitalism is allowed to pick up where it left off before Covid19. 

The pandemic has illustrated the cruel, callous impact of austerity; it has broken ‘just-in-time’ supply chains; exposed the fragility of the financial system; the boomerang brutality of boom and bust; the nefarious hand of the market; the unproductive accumulation of wealth in the hands of an avarice few; and the unsustainable pursuit of orthodox GDP Growth.This is the rotten infrastructure of an economic system that not only leaves us vulnerable to inevitable external and internal crises, but in itself is driving us towards the climate abyss. 

In a world ‘pregnant with all sorts of ugly things’ there is an onus on all shades of progressive movements, thinkers and representatives to identify economic and social concepts we want to set free. Ideas that contribute to the emancipation of exploited workers; protection of hard-pressed families; the empowering of local communities; and the decolonising of the natural world. 

Capitalism’s challenge has never been a scarcity of resources. We live in a world of plenty, where accumulated wealth is rotting in the hands of a small minority as millions continue to starve, living without basic sanitation and suffering the unequal effects of climate and ecological breakdown. 

So in the wake of Covid19 we need a restructuring of the economy that is as every bit as sweeping and enduring as neoliberalism’s triumph in the 1980s. Not merely a redistribution of wealth, but the redistribution of assets, resources, and the very levers of economic power. Our economic system must be democratised.

At the heart of this new departure must be a new deal for workers, where the needs of working people are embedded at the heart of a democratised economic system. 

We must strengthen economic rights and freedoms - namely the freedom to exercise your own labour in defiance of the ‘compulsion of the market’ and the equality destroying condition of ‘wage slavery’ in the service of orthodox growth and capital accumulation. 

Central to this process is a long overdue reinvigoration of the trade union movement with full restoration of collective bargaining structures; especially sectoral collective bargaining - which has proven to be one of the most effective ways in improving workers’ pay and conditions. Trade unions must also be guaranteed a statutory right to access the workplace, represent, and advocate for their members. 

We also badly need a new deal for women workers as, nearly half a century after the Equal Pay Act was introduced in Britain, women are still underrepresented in higher-ranking positions and overrepresented in low paid, part-time, precarious work. If such a glacial pace of change is allowed to continue, it will take another century to finally close the gender pay gap. 

The needs of working people must then be at the centre of this new economic model, and democratic checks and balances must be established to guarantee high quality public housing, healthcare, childcare, education and social welfare at the heart of a new social contract. 

A new reality that puts our society at the centre - replacing the destructive capitalist exchange model that values the economy above all other social interactions. 

In building this new, collaborative society we must rediscover the transformative power of public wealth and productive public investment. But this can only be done by democratising our social interactions - creating a public sphere where ideas are discussed and collective decisions are made. 

But we must also rediscover the power of progressive institutions as vehicles for working class energy, radical thinking, and grassroots campaigning. What’s often been forgotten in recent decades isMarx and Engels’s fundamental idea that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, a way of seeing the world that has lost ground to single-issue campaigning and impotent online petitions. 

In doing so, it's imperative that we finally move away from the failed neoliberal model of economic development through public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives and instead seek to nurture democratic collective participation, and ultimately ownership of the economy. 

Indeed in recent years we have seen a growing number of participatory budgeting processes around the world, a sustained growth in worker co-operatives, community land trusts, community banks, and genuine community procurement initiatives. We must ensure that these seeds are allowed to germinate into a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people, their families, and their community. 

Indigenous peoples throughout the global south have also begun to look deeply into their own traditions and human experiences in order to recover their indigenous identity and develop a much needed new vision of human society that is not subsumed by capitalist social norms. 

David Choquehuanca, the new vice-President of the Plurinational state of Bolivia is perhaps one of the most well known advocates of pachamamismo - an Andean inspired civilisational model focused on the urgent need to rediscover the indigenous ethical and ecological paradigm. 

Drawing inspiration from Quechua and Aymara connectedness to the land, this ecologically grounded alternative to capitalist colonial development has taken deep root in Bolivia, seen first during the Cochabamba ‘Water Wars’ in 2000, this grassroots social movement was pivotal to the return of national democracy in Bolivia last year following the US led military coup in 2019. 

Indeed the strength of this renewed ecological and anti-colonial paradigm in Bolivia, with its deep roots in the social movements continues to inspire similar movements around the world, such as Brazil’s Movement dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST or the Landless Workers Movement), or South Africa’s Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM or the Shack Dwellers), and also the farmers movement in India. 

From the Americas, throughout Africa and the Confucian principles still deeply embedded in indigenous communities throughout large parts of Asia, there is clearly much to be gained from rediscovering the rich reciprocal relationships with the natural world that sustained and permeated every aspect of life on earth for millennia.

It is little surprise then that of all the contributions from world leaders at COP26 this week, it was the Bolivian President Luis Arce who most emphatically identified the urgent need to tackle extractive capitalism and unfettered consumerism. 

Arce warned his fellow world leaders that “the solution to the climate crisis will not be achieved with more green capitalism, or more global carbon markets; the solution is civilisational change, towards an alternative model to capitalism.”

For too long we in the global north have been incorrigible in the face of such calls for collective action from leaders in the global south. We have turned a blind eye to the destructive terraforming of the planet through the extractive logic of capitalism; we have been unmoved by the irreversible loss of ecologically sensitive habit, the agricultural arson of the Amazon, or the sinking shorelines of Bangladesh. 

Covid19 has proven that delays are not merely expensive, but fatal when responding to global emergencies. So unless we smash the ‘business as usual mindset’ and create a new democratic economic system we will continue to accelerate towards catastrophic climate destruction, and finally deliver earth’s sixth mass extinction event. 

Chris Hazzard is the Sinn Féin MP for South Down. A member of the party’s ruling Ard Chomhairle, Chris is also the Sinn Féin Group Leader at Westminster and an active member of Sinn Féin’s International Committee.