Talking Transition: The Climate Crisis, Technology and the Nation State

by Prof. Janet Cherry –

Forget the national liberation movement. Forget the idea of capturing the nation state for the national working class. Forget the patriotic bourgeoisie and discard the rhetoric of revolutionary nationalism. Forget the second transition (to national liberation? to economic freedom?) or even a third transition (to socialism?) or a fourth transition (to communism?). There is something else going on in the world, and our narrow national concerns are going to blind us to the real transition that is taking place.

What is a transition? What transition are we talking about here? In the first place, it is a process of change, from one state (in the physical sense) to another; from solid to liquid (melting ice); from liquid to gas (boiling water). “All that is solid melts into air” as Marx famously said:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” (Manifesto of the Community Party, 1948. Chapter 1)

In the first instance, the transition we are dealing with here is a global transition in the forces of production – a transition away from fossil-fuel based production. This transition is necessitated by the climate crisis. Without going into detail of why this transition is necessary, or how it is occurring, the argument here is premised on the understanding that human society will respond to the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade. If I am wrong, and the tipping point is already past; or if I am wrong and we are subject to a determinist view of history that we cannot change through struggle or agency, then the whole argument falls away. So bear with me and accept the premise above.
If this transition is occurring, it has far-reaching implications for our agenda for building an egalitarian, democratic, socialist society. The technology upon which production is based is changing – in other words, the forces of production are changing radically. The technology allows for decentralised production of energy, food and many of the goods and services which meet basic needs of human society. Decentralised, localised forms of production have, in turn, far-reaching implications for the social relations of production. The means of production can be locally owned and controlled. The monopolisation and centralisation of capital that Marx thought inevitable, can be reversed in the 21st century. Not only production of goods but provision of services, especially banking, communication, information – can be democratised and decentralised.

The climate crisis, which threatens the livelihoods and lives of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, is potentially a liberating force in this context. The argument is that decentralised energy production allows for local control over the means of production and this in turn allows for radical changes in the social relations of production. New localised economies which are premised on food sovereignty, energy sovereignty, and reuse of local resources in a circular economy principle, have the potential to fundamentally alter the existing capitalist mode of production. While in the global North, overconsumption and overdependence on fossil fuel means a much more difficult transition to low-carbon economies while retaining a high quality of life, the global South has the potential for a different kind of transition.

Can we change the social relations of production under capitalism, without seizing control of the nation state? Is it possible that localised initiatives can pose a challenge to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism as we know them? The argument against ‘picking lemons’ implies that it is only the undesirable or marginal parts of the economy that are accessible to the marginalised (or the lumpen proletariat, or the precariat, or the rural proletariat); it is only these parts that can be socialised, while remaining on the periphery of the global capitalist economy. And it is true, there are few instances in the global North where working-class communities have really implemented democratic and sustainable socialism. Linking in Samir Amin’s idea of delinking African economies from the global North, it is argued here that radical change is more likely to come from the South, from the most marginal societies in particular – those on the periphery in Wallerstein’s model. Such societies (for example Malawi, Lesotho or Mozambique) which have not completed a transition to capitalism and are less integrated into the global capitalist economy, are in a better position to explore new alternatives made possible by technology. Relationships with China and other BRICS countries may also strengthen this counter-power, but this is not a foregone conclusion.

Our argument in the Transition Township project in Kwazakhele, Nelson Mandela Bay, and in the Amandla! Collective, is that it is possible to explore alternatives to capitalism within the current political dispensation. Our own struggles, over decades, have given us the experience of participatory democracy, of contesting hegemony at local level, and of wielding some forms of power. What we have not achieved is the taking of control of material resources; the wielding of economic power. Our history of local popular power did not result in economic power; even the best NUMSA and NUM worker cooperatives established in the course of the struggle, were unsustainable. The cooperatives established post 1994 as part of a top-down, state-led development in the context of neoliberal macro-economic policies, were equally unsustainable. And while the National Democratic Transition has given us space, we have not used this space effectively. We have not contested it through the discourses of participatory development, participation in development planning (through the IDP process), through the Municipal LED agenda; through the Peoples Housing Process; through rural development policies and programmes; through waste management programmes; through EPWP. None of these have been democratic or worker controlled, let alone socialist; they have involved some dispensing of benefits or wages to the poor, but no control by the working class.
Drawing on the theory of Antonio Gramsci, among others; and the revolutionary practice of Matthew Goniwe, in contesting power at the local level in Cradock in 1985, we aim to take these ideas into practice in the next phase of struggle. Some examples of this are the following:

The decentralisation of energy production: This entails the transition to renewable energy; local control of energy production (why should the big corporates be those who make millions from the government’s IPP programme? Why is it that only wealthy homeowners are retrofitting and selling their power back to the municipality?); and incorporates the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ campaign which offsets the job losses from the end of coal with the creation of new jobs from renewable energy. The difference in this context is that these million jobs are not ‘jobs’ for ‘workers’ who will be paid a wage by a big company. They are livelihoods for the worker-owners-managers of the local energy company. Our pilot is a neighbourhood cooperative – some comrades refer to it as a ‘Gap Tap Soviet’ model – where the residents are the owners and managers of a common asset, generating energy from ‘their’ public space (as well as their rooftops) and selling that energy. Goodbye Eskom. Goodbye global mineral energy complex. We do not need you in this model. If we cannot make the PV panels ourselves, we will form trade alliances with India and China.

The decentralisation of food production: This entails food sovereignty. Localised production and distribution of food, with the level of localisation being appropriate to the facility of production in that locality. Spinach and tomatoes can be, and are, grown everywhere, in backyards in any part of Sub-Saharan Africa; cattle and goats are kept everywhere, in every township and village in the region. Sugar grows in KZN (and in Mozambique where Huletts is taking over peasant farms) and coffee grows in Limpopo (and in Kenya, for just one example). Our recent household survey in Kwazakhele led to a finding which contests the current dismal-left wisdom that the urban poor are eating a poor diet because they cannot afford fresh vegetables (packaged by Woolworths in three layers of plastic, having been transported 1000 km). On the contrary – working class residents of townships are eating fresh vegetables every day, buying them in singles as they need them, from vendors. Where are the fresh produce markets in every neighbourhood? The market is there, and yet who is benefitting?

The decentralisation of financial services: South Africa has the most appalling concentration of bankers who collude to exclude. While COSATU has admirably contested this issue, the technology that is now available through blockchain has far-reaching implications for this project. While the Bitcoin craze has not affected the poor as yet, the potential for democratised financing is enormous. FORUS is just one example of social entrepreneurship which may prove this point.

The creation of the circular economy through re-use of waste: Waste to energy, waste to food (composting, animal feed, fish food); waste to wealth (buy back to recycling from the most local neighbourhood level); waste to production (plastics to everything from handbags to textiles to water tanks and gutters) – all is potentially accessible to working class communities.

The use of existing public and private resources to generate livelihoods: (we do not talk of ‘wealth’ or ‘capital’, but rather what people need to have a good quality of life, and socially meaningful work). This includes using De Soto’s argument and twisting it; in Kwazakhele, almost all residents live in a house which is now privately owned, with a title deed, secure tenure, a small plot which can (and is) used for growing vegetables, or for building a backyard shack for rent, or for running some other kind of business. There is a great deal of unutilised land in South Africa. In Nelson Mandela Bay, there are a great many unutilised buildings, both public (schools) and private (factories and warehouses).

The repurposing and reclaiming of public infrastructure for public good: The key example in our context is the Swartkops Power Station, which is on the edge of Kwazakhele township. An iconic coal-fired power station which was decommissioned twenty years ago and sold to private interests, now rented out for storing of manganese, it has potential to be the centre of an innovative development on the coast, linking residents of the townships in a vibrant centre of new technology, cultural industries and food production.

The creation of productive facilities using new technology: For example, 3-D printing which enables decentralised and purpose-made production using recycled plastics. Such technology means that it is no longer necessary to have economies of scale or massive capital investment in order to produce what is needed so that it is affordable to the working class. Instead, the working class can control their own production, decide what to produce and consume, and no longer be alienated from their own labour.

All these things could happen, and many aspects of them are about to happen, but not necessarily as an advance of the democratic socialist project. How the technology is used, who benefits, how it is controlled and managed – all this is up to us. Can we change the relations of production? If not, why not? What are the impediments to this? Is it naïve to think that a localised experiment of this nature could be successful? This is the challenge I am putting forward to this first dialogue – and I invite your critical responses.

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