Sunday, February 13, 2011

No one should make a profit every time we flick a light switch

The lads in Riff Raff look after each other - squat houses, reconnect the gas and look after each other at work.

In Ken Loach's excellent film Riff-Raff about being a young, poor worker in Thatcher's Britain, some older, stroppier builders labourers help a young, homeless man get set up in London by helping him squat an abandoned council flat.

They clean it up together and while there the oldest and stroppiest of the builders shares some of his thoughts on public utilities. He talks about how the Liverpool City Council is the only council in the country building more council houses . Then he reconnects the flats gas before telling the lads, "Can anyone explain to me why someone's got to make a profit everytime you boil the kettle, or everytime a kid has a drink of water, or everytime a pensioner has a warm by the gas fire".

Why should someone make a profit everytime we use our laptops, boil a cup of tea or take a hot shower? The concept of "mum and dad investors" is misleading. With privatisation comes a division between those who are being profited from and those who are making a profit. We aren't all equally able to invest. Those who two years after the economic crisis have spare cash are most likely the very same speculators who ruined the real economy for the rest of us. Many "mums and dads" are broke, unemployed or indebted to their eyeballs. A large and growing part of the population has given up the idea of ever being able to own their own home let alone buy shares on the stock exchange. Capitalism is screwing the poor and privatisation will screw it more.

Just cause some rich investors make a profit from electricity ain't going to renew our economy long term. It isn't going to reduce unemployment or boost incomes. All it will do is give the state a bit of cash to plug the deficit in the short term while cutting off long term income streams. What happens when the next recession comes and the Government needs to plug its deficit? Do we sell our schools? Or our hospitals? Capitalism is a system of boom and bust. What happens after the Government sells all its assets? Do we start selling our last asset, people? Sell the population of Timaru into indentured labour to raise money for the rest of the country's retirement?

Contrary to popular belief we don't have a huge Government deficit because of out of control public spending but because Labour and National have given tax cut after tax cut to the rich and to corporations. Working people, trade unions and left activists face a choice. Either idologically fight for much, higher taxes on the richest individuals, on property speculators and our profitable corporations to pay for things like early childhood education or night classes, support for the elderly, etc or watch those services disappear along with Government revenue streams.

Can you believe these drongos in the Herald who say we are economically illiterate? We'll give them an economics lesson they won't forget come the revolution when we turn their mansions into luxury accomodation for the permanently disabled. Use their Beamers and Mercs to ferry old people to the lawn bowls club or the nationalised cinemas running under worker's control. Donate their fizz boats and gin palaces to the Somali pirates.

We've got to put a stop to this privatisation madness before it spirals out of control. We've got to stand up and demand higher taxes on the rich and the banks. In the UK a grassroots movement called Uncut is occupying banks, taking over fashionable stores and generally making a nuisance to draw attention to rich corporations avoiding taxes.

This is a good first step, a practical way of winning the culture war against the corporates hegemony that working people must accept austerity and cuts to social services to maintain corporate profits. But lets go further than that here. If the Government is going broke it needs to earn more money not less. So why not nationalise the supermarket duopoly? That'd stem the deficit, bring down food prices and no doubt improve wages for the tens of thousands of supermarket workers around the country. What about nationalising SkyTV? Al Jazeera is a remarkably innovative and creative satellite TV network with a growing viewer audience and it is wholely owned by the Government of Qatar. Sure you'd want to make it editorially independent in ways that Al Jazeera is not in terms of its coverage of Saudi Arabia but imagine the effect of a TV channel promoting revolution in the south Pacific. Then it could be millions on the streets in West Papua to break the military occupation, or Fijian slum dwellers bringing down their dicatorship with non-violent civil disobedience. Or how about buying a controlling stake in SkyCity casinos, if tourists and Aucklanders want to throw their money down the throats of slot machines then wouldn't it be great if that money went to paying for those operating theaters we so desperately need?

If you're going broke you don't get rid of our income streams you go and get more. For the rich they prefer GST and other forms of taxing the working poor - it's only a matter of time before John Key starts talking about a crisis of student debt and trying to re-introduce interest on student loans or putting up school fees.

Rejecting the logic of privatisation, means rejecting the logic of the domination of the wealthy over the poor and that rejection leads to the rejection of their system- wage slavery, private ownership of production, the dicatorship of private property- capitalism.

The reason that the Key remains popular, privatisation palatable and the working class not in open revolt is that the left for years has been losing the culture war with the rich. As a recent commentator on the website of the Guardian noted, "The lack of resentment against the rich is one of the peculiarities of modern capitalism." The British students who had a go at the Crown Prince as he passed their demonstration are the exception that proves the rule. Front page headlines that a couple of commoners had a go at a bunch of unelected pricks who still have the nerve to aspire to rule over us as their subjects.

Riff raff and most of Loach's cinema is an attempt to engage in that culture war and stir up in a popular and accesible form an anger at the dictatorship of capital and the misery of everyday life for working people under capitalism. In the more recent The Navigators Loach explores the effects of rail privatisation on rail workers-casualisation, industrial injury and underinvestment. Loach is doing what the left needs to do, engaging in an ideological struggle with the advocates of privatisation through social realism. This is what a new left movement urgently need to do here at home. Short stories about pensioners shivering in the dark, films about small communities devestated by unemployment and economic deregulation and hip hop songs that call for working class youth to get organised and fight back.

The radical left has played a critical role in New Zealand history, leading the struggle for an eight hour day in the 19th century and the right to strike in the early 20th, fighting conscription during WW1, opposing war in Vietnam and nuclear ship visits, organising unemployed people in the 30s and 90s when they were demonized as tramps and bludgers, supporting Maori land occupations, fighting the Springbok Tour. In each moment the left broke into the mainstream by going to where the people were and spreading revolutionary ideas, left wing solutions and giving people the tools for organising confrontational direct action. History shows time and again that intolerable, oppresive systems eventually fall when the oppressed continue to resist and rebel- Apartheid South Africa, Mubarak's Egypt, the British Empire and the "dark and satanic" factory system of the 19th century. Neo-liberal capitalism is undergoing a serious crisis and it is by no means certain that an increasingly well educated, well organised and insurgent global proletariat will put up with it for long.

We shouldn't forget that in Bolivia the defeat of water privatisation in 2000 led to the emergence of hugely strengthened left social movements, trade unions and Morales' Movement towards Socialism taking power. Although Bolivia has yet to undergo a social revolution, Morales and his Government is rapidly improving the lives of some of the continents poorest people and providing an alternative to neo-liberalism. At a time when most countries are raising the retirement age, Bolivia is lowering it. A modest reform but as the working class wins reforms and grows in confidence the possibility of revolutionary transformation towards a socialist society begins to open up.

Today when wages are dropping, unemployment up, education and healthcare under threat, prisons growing and privatisation on the agenda, the radical left needs to step up to its historical mission. It's no use simplydecrying the excesses of the rich we have to make our ideas common sense and vigorously promote them until we win the culture war - graffiti, protests, leaflets, stickers and strikes. "Honour the Treaty", "No blood for oil", "G.e. free NZ", "Stop the Tour", " A fair day's work for a fair day's pay", "Break up the big estates", all began as marginal ideas that went on to radically change the course of Aotearoa's history. The left needs to get started on its next big fight to win the debate over public ownership of the economy -"No one should make a profit every time we flick a light switch."

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