From the plethora of bad news stories from which to choose in early 2013, two, taken at random on January 10, may serve to illustrate the claim made at the head of this column. The first is a “human interest” story, which therefore took precedence in the media over the second, which was not.
A family of seven – two grandparents and five grandchildren aged from two to eleven – escaped from a tornado of fire that engulfed their home in Tasmania, by fleeing into the sea where they survived by spending more than three hours clinging precariously to a jetty as the flames destroyed everything, including their homes, on the shore behind them. Their ordeal was captured on camera by the grandfather and featured prominently in international news media. This was a story from the firestorms that have swept across southern Australia as temperatures in places reached an unprecedented 50C. Monday, 7 January was the hottest day on record, with an average nationwide temperature of 40.33C, beating the earlier 1972 record of 40.17C. However, what is most significant about this is that four of Australia’s ten hottest days on record have been in 2013 – that is, during the last ten days.
The second story was not as newsworthy. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers reported that world-wide, one billion people go to bed hungry every night while between 30 and 50 per cent of food produced globally goes to waste. Two billion tons of food is thrown away every year. Dr. Tim Fox of the IME commented: “The amount of food wasted and lost globally is staggering. It could be used to feed the growing population and those in hunger today.” There are approximately seven billion people in the world, which means that one in seven of the world’s population is either suffering from malnutrition or facing starvation. The situation is considerably worse today than it was in the 1960s. Yet according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), enough food is produced globally to provide everyone with 2.720 calories per day – more than is required by a healthy adult.
In Britain no-one, not even the prime minister, has been so bold or brazen as to seriously suggest that there is a silver lining to the economic clouds lowering menacingly in 2013. But no-one in government really wants to face up to the truth about global warming and about global hunger and famine, despite two million tons of food going to waste annually. It is convenient to regard such phenomena as natural disasters over which governments and human agencies have little control. Despite overwhelming and now incontrovertible evidence that climate change and global warming are due largely to human activity, governments everywhere willingly collaborate with the multi-national corporations, who in their relentless drive to maximize profits are responsible for environmental pollution, de-forestation, food wastage and resource-destruction. In Australia, where 300.000 hectares of land have just been consumed in the firestorm and temperatures are set to soar over 50C, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott describes climate change science as “absolute crap.”
Abbott’s view, albeit rather more crudely expressed, is, to judge by their inaction, also that of the global corporate and political elites. Despite some feeble gestures over recent decades (Kyoto; Copenhagen) intended to suggest that they are serious about tackling planetary despoliation, next to nothing is actually done. Insofar as the world’s news media deal with the subject at all, the impression is created that (to take only the two examples mentioned here) nothing can be done to prevent ever larger areas of the globe being subjected to ever more frequent catastrophic heat-waves and concomitant destructive firestorms; nothing can be done to prevent 50% of the world’s food production being discarded as trash while one seventh of the world’s people face hunger and starvation. Such things are forces of nature or “Acts of God” and we had better get used to them.
There is another way of looking at it and that is to see such catastrophes as inextricably connected to the global capitalist mode of production in its monopoly-finance, neo-liberal phase. Those who believe (and it is a matter of belief, in a quasi-religious sense) that the capitalist market operates as an eternal law of nature, demanding obeisance from humble humans be they billionaire bankers or low-paid manual workers, reject (almost) all attempts to interfere in its operation. The obvious “exceptional” case arises when Banks that are considered “too big to fail”, blinded by the complex concoctions of their financial wizards who shamelessly manipulate the “free” market, become alarmingly “over-leveraged” and face imminent default. Because they are “too big to fail” they have to be bailed out by the tax-payer. Then, such intervention in the operation of the market is not only permitted, but is absolutely necessary. Multi-national corporations, in their inexorable drive for new and cheaper markets to exploit, care little or nothing for the effects their operations have on the environment. For the most part “corporate social-responsibility” is an oxymoron. Capitalism’s drive to accumulate is, in Marx’s words, “Moses and the prophets.”
To accept the view that nothing can be done to prevent irreversible and catastrophic global warming, and hunger and famine in the midst of plenty, is to argue that this generation is helpless to prevent the planet becoming incapable of sustaining human life. It is to condemn our children, grandchildren and subsequent generations to an environment not worth living in; to a future without hope. The alternative is to recognize the need for systemic change. Either the world-wide capitalist system continues to despoil the planet, lurching from one economic crisis to another even more severe one, or the system is changed root and branch. Failure to make the transition to a system fit for human-beings will ultimately mean that there is no future for humanity. Should this conclusion be considered too stark, it may be worth taking a look at some of the problems that beset Britain and Europe as we enter 2013.
Britain and the European Union
This country faces an unprecedented triple-dip recession. What several years ago would have been considered unimaginable - 25% cuts in local government budgets resulting in the decimation of services to local communities, draconian cuts in benefits for the poorest, privatization of the National Health Service - now pass almost without comment in the mainstream media and are hailed in the right-wing press as a laudable antidote to “skiving.” There are still 2.51 million unemployed, of whom nearly a million are young people. There are also 8.07m in part time work, many of whom are in such work because they can’t afford to retire. 1.4m others want to work full-time but they cannot find jobs. There is no discernible sign of return to economic growth but the coalition government has warned that austerity will continue for several years, guaranteeing depressed consumer spending. As Britain’s main export market, the Eurozone, is also in recession, growth is unlikely to come from exports, which pretty much guarantees continued recession here. For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, many, including hard-pressed middle class families, have become dependent on food banks (today’s soup-kitchens) for week-to-week survival. David Cameron sees this as an example of his much vaunted “Big Society”.
The right wing of the Tory party (which comprises the majority of Tory MPs) wants Britain to leave the EU. Due to the long-running crisis in the Eurozone, in particular as it affects Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and to a lesser extent Italy, recent opinion polls in Britain have shown small majorities in favor of withdrawal. This is unsurprising given that most mass-circulation newspapers are very right-wing and Europhobic. But, there is a reasonable perception in Britain that the EU bureaucracy has treated the weakest Eurozone member states – particularly Greece and Spain, with brutal harshness, imposing through their compliant governments, draconian and crippling austerity measures even more punitive than those imposed by the coalition government here. This has strengthened the hand of those calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But it has caused serious problems for Prime Minister Cameron. Himself a “Eurosceptic”, he is nevertheless in coalition with the strongly Europhile Liberal Democrats. Cameron is due to make what is supposed to be a keynote speech setting out Britain’s conditions for continued EU membership, in the expectation that the threat of withdrawal will be sufficient to persuade the other EU members, particularly Germany and France, to concede to his demand for the “repatriation” from the EU to the UK of certain key powers. The chances of this demand being accepted are virtually nil. He has promised his backbenchers a referendum on EU membership in the next parliament, should the Tories win the 2015 election. But he is now under conflicting pressures from all sides, including the EU leaders and the Obama administration, both of whom want Britain to be “at the heart of Europe.” Should the British electorate vote in a referendum for withdrawal from the EU, it would throw the government and the European elites into a crisis of huge proportions. If the coalition fails to deliver on the referendum, it could split the Tory party, with a mass exodus to the Europhobic UK Independence party (UKIP). Such an outcome would all but destroy the coalition government. The anti-EU right wing has always assumed that a Britain detached from the EU would be able to strengthen its bond with the United States in the much vaunted “special relationship”. But this would not happen. Such an outcome, it has been made clear by the US government, is not in the interests of the United States. Whichever way things go in
coming months, there is no sign of Britain’s economic crisis easing. Only concerted mass action to overturn the austerity programme, led by a determined and re-vitalized trade union movement, will be capable of defeating the government.
Popular Resistance in the Eurozone
2013 is very unlikely to bring an end to the crisis in the Eurozone. Consider the two countries that have been hit hardest – Greece and Spain. At the end of 2012 unemployment in both had risen over 26%. But youth unemployment has reached levels that until now were unknown in Europe – in Spain 56.5% and in Greece 57.6%. Yet most reporting of these cases managed to ignore the plight of the millions reduced to penury, concentrating instead on the supposed stabilization of the Euro achieved by the European Commission, the European Central bank and the IMF. ‘Greece’ and ‘Spain’, we were told, had been rescued from the brink by the timely acceptance of yet more punitive austerity in return for the latest bail-out for the financial system. Fortunately the long suffering people of these countries are unlikely to tolerate another year of misery. Resistance is growing. It is most likely to reach boiling point first in Greece, where the Samaras government cannot survive for long. When the dam bursts in Greece, as it surely will, who can predict what the wider consequences will be?
It has become increasingly difficult for the defenders of the global capitalist system to argue convincingly that there is a way out of this crisis. Neo-liberalism is at the end of the road. Some Keynesians propose a radical change of course, advocating replacing the existing “bad capitalism” with a more egalitarian “good capitalism”. Sometimes their advocacy sounds like the root-and-branch change that is needed to save the planet from disaster. But insofar as they put their faith in the political power elites that have produced the mess, their plea will go unheeded. Only mass resistance of the kind that is emerging in parts of Europe and beyond will bring the change that is needed.