placard says "planet over profit"
Environment  •  International

Global Climate Strike: a millions-strong start

26 September 2019

By Martin Suchanek

The international action week #WeekForFuture began with a success on a grand scale. Worldwide, millions took to the streets on September 20, the first of the two planned climate general strikes.

In Australia, it was 300,000 to 400,000, in Germany 1.4 million. Overall, it is still difficult to estimate the total number – but it is already certain that the climate strike will outnumber all previous internationally coordinated actions to “save the planet”, and thus safeguard the survival of humankind. In the course of the whole week of action and both strike days, protests, demonstrations and strikes are planned in more than 160 states and at least 2,900 cities.

In Berlin and New York alone, according to the organisers, 270,000 and 250,000 respectively took to the streets. In London and Hamburg, Sydney and Melbourne 100,000 or more. Other capitals such as Brussels were also strongly represented. In most countries, however, the general strike will not take place until September 27.

The great majority of demonstrators and strikers, and this is undoubtedly a weakness of the movement as a whole, still come from Western imperialist countries and metropolises. Although there is no doubt that it is spreading in countries dominated by imperialism, in Africa and Asia, Fridays for Future’s actions can as yet only be counted in hundreds and thousands, not in tens of thousands or millions.

In Cape Town and Johannesburg, several thousand demonstrators were counted. There were also protests in Kampala (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya) and in the oil regions of Nigeria. In India, particularly students took to the streets. In Pakistan, our comrades of the “Revolutionary Socialist Movement” took part in the actions in Karachi, Lahore and several smaller cities. In Brazil and other Latin American countries FFF is relatively weak compared to Europe or North America, but at the same time a huge movement against Bolsonaro and (not only) the deforestation and destruction of the Amazon has formed. Here it is the movements of the landless and agricultural workers, the trade unions, the left and indigenous people who are at the center of resistance.

What will be decisive for the construction of a truly global movement is not so much whether Fridays for Future itself can expand, but whether it will succeed in connecting with other, sometimes much larger and more radical, movements of tenants and agricultural workers, poor peasants, indigenous people or inhabitants of slums and poor neighborhoods, as well as the workers in the sweatshops of the “new” industries.

Especially in these countries the question of environmental protection and struggle against corporate arbitrariness, political disenfranchisement and exploitation by imperialist as well as “native” capital arises much more directly.

The social base of Fridays for Future

Fridays for Future has attracted such huge support, especially in the imperialist countries, first and foremost because of its social base. Above all, it is a protest by pupils – but often not the poorest, most oppressed and most precarious classes. Until now, it has been pupils from the middle classes and the better paid sections of the working class that have shaped the appearance as well as the political-ideological orientation of the movement.

It is not surprising that FFF is dominated by these strata and certainly not a criticism. Historically, it has often been the petty bourgeois classes (students, the intelligentsia) who, precisely because of their social position between the main classes, reacted more quickly to new questions and real problems than the masses of the working class, and especially compared to the reformist political and trade union organisations.

However, it will be crucial for revolutionaries and all class-struggle and left forces that they not only help to build such a mass movement, but also consciously intervene with a political programme to give it an internationalist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist orientation and overcome the ultimately paralysing influence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies.

Last Friday, however, a second aspect emerged in a number of countries that could strengthen movement in this direction. Greta Thunberg, FFF’s global figurehead, called for a global general strike for September. Although September 20 was not a general strike, in the sense of an organised, collective work stoppage of whole workforces, it did focus the social pressure that the movement has long exerted.

Now, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people see the “climate issue” and the barbaric overexploitation of our livelihoods as a question of survival. This is forcing many governments and most of the mainstream bourgeois parties to acknowledge the legitimacy of the movement. US Democrats, German Conservatives, Labour and Social Democrats, Greens and Left Parties – all are trying to ride the “climate wave” somehow.

No doubt this can encourage illusions but, on September 20, it also encouraged mobilisation. The city of New York, for example, released around 1,700 public schools. In Berlin, the state government gave employees the freedom to take part in the demonstration during working hours. This explains, at least in part, why a quarter of a million people took to the streets in both cities and why, at least in Berlin, a large proportion of the demonstrators, along with pupils, parents and teachers, were public service employees.

At the same time, even here a central weakness reveals itself. The wage earners did not come because of collective strike action, but because of the “indulgence” of their employers. In Germany, this was the case for several companies that released “their” employees not only for ecological reasons, but also for public relations considerations.

The trade unions themselves, like many parties in the workers’ movement, welcomed the global strike warmly but there was no direct call for a strike, or for a global political mass strike.

Above all, however, the bureaucratic leaders did not even try. In some countries like Germany or Britain, restrictions on the right to strike or anti-union laws were used as welcome excuses and “reasons” not to call a strike. This policy of trade union leaderships and reformist parties reinforces the illusion that a cross-class solution to the environmental question is needed and could only be achieved through the joint efforts of “all people”, meaning a block of all classes, all governments. Finally, in the eyes of many activists, trade unions that do not directly call and organise strikes do not actually contribute to the success of the action any more than “reasonable” entrepreneurs or city councils that release “their” employees on a daily basis.

A human problem or a capitalist problem?

The dominance of left-liberal and petty-bourgeois ideologies is also expressed in FFF’s strategy and demands.

The aim is not to change the balance of power between social forces. Rather, the rulers and all classes of society – poor and rich, capital and labour – have to be persuaded to do together “what is necessary” for the climate to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In some countries, such as Germany, this goal has been made a little more concrete – but basically it remains a matter of general recommendations to “the politicians”, which do not become more concrete simply because they have been approved by thousands of bourgeois scientists and climate researchers.

This illusion that all classes, all social groups in capitalism have the “same” interest, because all want to survive, seems to many activists to be the strength of the movement. In reality, it represents its greatest weakness.

Even if some concrete improvements on the environmental question can be achieved through determined struggle within capitalism, ecologically sustainable production on a societal scale is simply impossible. In every market economy, it is always only after production that it becomes clear which product is socially useful, and which satisfies a (profitable) demand.

In addition, the satisfaction of human needs (let alone ecological sustainability) in capitalism is at best a means to pursue the actual purpose of production – exploitation of human labour to maximise profit.

In a period of crisis, competition forces ever tougher methods maintain market share and profits – at the expense of humankind and nature. Since the governments of all capitalist states are ultimately nothingmore than the political executive committees of the ruling classes, it is not surprising that climate protection regularly falls by the wayside – not only with Trump, Bolsonaro or Putin, but also with Merkel’s “Climate Cabinet”, or when Macron serves the French nuclear industry.

All this should make it sufficiently clear that it is at best a naive illusion to want to get all classes, all social forces on board for climate protection. On the contrary, the attempt to do that means losing valuable time. Effective climate protection is only possible against the interests of the big corporations, big capital – not through “persuading”m them.

FFF and the environmental movement must become anti-capitalist!

FFF and the environmental movement must therefore become anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist – and they must understand the “climate question” as a class question.

This requires concrete demands, all of which lead again and again to the question of property and to a democratic and planned economy, that means a fundamental reorganization not just of the economy but of social relations.

Let’s just take the question of who should pay for the costs of the ecological restructuring of the economy. The “climate-friendly” companies and bourgeois governments want “market-based” instruments, subsidies or tax gifts to create “incentives” for “ecological” multinationals to redirect investments. In practice, they hope to be able to convince capital that there are more profits to be made from sustainable production. As the example of e-automobility shows, this is, firstly, not ecological and, secondly, based on increased exploitation of labour.

The “pricing” of CO2 emissions through certificate trading or through taxes not only has an extremely low “steering effect”, as experience so far has shown, but it ultimately forces the costs of the allegedly ecological transformation onto the very people who have the least influence on the goals, purposes, production methods. In this model, it is the mass of wage earners, the farming community, the urban and rural poor who pay. This has nothing to do with the declared goal of climate justice.

In both cases, the costs are to be collected through higher prices or through general, indirect taxes, meaning through mechanisms that hit the wage-dependent and smallholder consumers far above average.

Tax increases could certainly be a means of procuring the financial resources for ecological restructuring. But it should be through the massive taxation of corporate profits and large private assets. It should be by forcing the rich to pay. This could be used, for example, to finance state projects for the ecological renovation of housing, the expansion of public transport, and most importantly not just under the co-management of employees, but under their central control. In addition, the funds could be made available in this way to prevent all redundancies due to ecological restructuring, to expropriate these companies and to restructure them under workers’ control and with the help and expertise of scientists.

A real transformation of the economy, as well as of social life generally, naturally requires more – it requires a plan to achieve the climate goals, which at the same time includes an improvement of the social situation of the precarious, over-exploited strata of the working class and the masses in the so-called “Third World”. This is not possible without massive intervention in private property, without the expropriation without compensation of large capital and assets, of banks, industrial corporations, service providers, transport and trading companies. At the same time, the debts of the so-called “Third World” must be cancelled without compensation and the borders opened for all climate refugees, in fact, all refugees.

From global strike to global revolution

These goals can only be achieved if the working class becomes the leading force in the environmental movement, if the movement itself becomes internationalist and anti-capitalist.

This requires, of course, cooperation and coordination within the movement itself of all those forces that combine the struggle for a liveable environment with the struggle against capital, that want to build an international movement of workers and peasants. The global climate strike represents an important step in this direction – but it is one that is simultaneously connected with numerous illusions, e.g. in the “world community” of the so-called “United Nations”. These illusions are, like all hopes in the actions of “our” governments, undermined on a daily basis – but we must also actively contribute to it, and to articulate these conclusions consciously within the movement.

One aspect of this undoubtedly also means advocating a change of course in the workers’ movement itself. Vague and non-binding “sympathy” with the environmental movement, with FFF and other initiatives will not suffice. Above all, the work of the trade unions themselves must become more political. It is not only a matter of supporting others in the struggle for a liveable environment, but also of becoming active in the companies, in the factories and on their shop-floors themselves, in collective bargaining, in political disputes over one’s own demands. By raising the ecological question, the question of production control and expropriation of the climate killers in the large corporations can actually become more popular and contribute to a radicalisation of the labour movement, if done correctly.

Finally, it is a matter of taking up the enormous progressive aspect of FFF, the international breadth of its actions. We advocate the organisation of action conferences of the environmental movement on a national and international level, which must be open to all currents of the movement. Such conferences would have to have two central and immediate tasks: a) to develop an immediate programme for climate protection in the interest of the global working class and, above all, the countries dominated by imperialism; b) an action plan for a global general strike to hit the climate killers in the corporatiions where it hurts – in the profits.

Such a movement, if the strikes go beyond individual days, would undoubtedly become a powerful challenge for numerous governments. It would raise the question of power, and that means the question of social revolution, in whole countries. The movement would therefore have to prepare itself to answer it by preparing the working class and its allies for the necessity of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the establishment of workers’ governments and a democratic planned economy. Then, but only then, could the biggest crisis of humankind become a trigger for its liberation.

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