Friday, September 26, 2008

A Three Alarm Crisis

Certainly the term “crisis” is overworked. Sometimes this suits the interests of the ruling rich, as Naomi Klein has ably demonstrated in such works as The Shock Doctrine, The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism. There are many serious problems confronting the working class that are chronic, endemic to Free Enterprise, requiring systemic change.

But, while resisting panic from cynical wolf-criers, we need to recognize that there are at times crisis situations that demand urgent action. I believe we can identify three of those today:

* Financial/Credit
The housing bubble, which created artificial, unsustainable high real estate values, is only part of the larger credit disaster. Many now owe far more than they can ever repay–not just on mortgages but for their transportation, health care, and college education. The current bailout effort in the USA holds the very flow of money hostage to an enormous transfer of wealth from the tax-paying working class to pay the rich part of this uncollectible debt. Whether the bailout is approved, or in its absence day to day credit dries up, it’s a lose-lose situation for American workers.

* Fuel
Soaring costs and spot shortages of fuel have adversely impacted every sector of the world economy and there’s no end in sight.

* Climate
Above all, the global warming crisis, threatening the very existence of human life as we know it, is advancing much faster than even the most pessimistic recent projections. With melting polar and Greenland ice, and warming ocean temperatures, we will soon see rising sea levels threatening the homes of hundreds of millions. We are approaching the point of no return. Yet greenhouse emissions are still on the rise, massive offshore drilling and shale extraction will soon be authorized by Congress, and 28 new coal fired powerplants are under construction, with permits approved for 20 more, just in the USA. Even former Vice-President Al Gore has called on young people to use civil disobedience to stop the growth of destructive coal.

But Gore is the partial exception that proves the rule. The corporate and political Establishment has no acceptable solutions to any of these challenges. And, most of our union and mainstream environmental leaders defer to the Establishment. That makes them part of the problem, not the solution.

Initiatives from below are clearly needed to work both through existing organizations, such as our unions and environmental groups, and to draw in the unorganized in to ad hoc formations, to discuss a program and strategy for confronting this three-alarm crisis.

In my opinion, such discussion should be geared to planning a far-reaching emergency response. Earlier this week, in writing about the inadequate party platforms in the current Canadian election campaign, Ian Angus wrote,

“A government that really wanted to deal with climate change would declare a Climate Emergency. It would learn from the experience of World War II, when Ottawa forced through a radical transformation of the entire economy in a few months, with no lost jobs or pay cuts.”

Of course, this is also apropos to the USA, which had an even more impressive economic mobilization during that war--in fact what finally pulled the country out of the Great Depression. It’s an example that many of us have raised in the effort to unite labor and environmentalists in the U.S. In taking such bold steps on the climate crisis we would also take care of the other two as well.

But we can improve on the war time experiences. Instead of guaranteeing profits on top of costs for corporations we could and should nationalize the financial, energy, and transportation sectors–whose owners are responsible for the emergency. With the resources of public investments, we should bring labor, environmental, and scientific representatives in to the actual planning and management of those sectors.

We could bolster those public resources by ending the current wars, which serve only the interests of global capital, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, while we’re at it, pull the plug on the insane building of more nuclear weapons.

All of this emergency reorganization of the economy should follow the principle of Just Transition–guaranteeing worker living standards as they are retrained and placed in different jobs in a green, peaceful economy.

I don’t offer any blueprint for change. I propose opening discussion to formulate an action plan. A logical place to begin is among those already engaged in trying to transform the labor movement–such as the Labor Notes network and Center for Labor Renewal. Some left groups, such as
Aaron Bass's excellent analysis of the financial crisis in Socialist Action, seem interested in a nonsectarian dialogue.

But I stress the goal should be an action plan. We could talk about problems until the cows come home. We won’t solve everything right away. But the planet is on fire, the economy is crumbling–and like it or not, we’re the First Responders.