The shocking truth is that most of the world’s problems are technically easy to solve – but they involve challenging power.

Recently, the Scottish Government introduced a 5p tax on plastic bags. The result was that in the first year, 147 million fewer bags were used, and Scotland is on track for an 80% reduction. Northern Ireland had a similar experience. Meanwhile, in England, plastic bag use continues to rise: 8.5 billion bags were handed out last year.

plastic bag tesco

Why was it effective? I don’t believe that the cost alone was enough to change behaviour – people are not that desperate to save a few pennies. Rather, it made them think twice: the cashier says “do you want a bag?” and there is a very subtle peer pressure to say “No” – plastic bags pollute, and by saying “Yes”, we become complicit. All of us know about the plastic gyre, and plastic entering the food chain. The 5p charge reminds us of our role in this. We get into the habit of taking bags with us, or juggling purchases in our hands. It’s no great inconvenience, but it’s made a huge difference.

Whenever I shop in England, my purchases are put in a bag and handed to me before I can even think about. When I give the bag back, it’s me who feels like a weirdo making a pointless gesture.

A seal in plastic pollution. Photo CC by Nels Israelson

A seal in plastic pollution. Photo CC by Nels Israelson

The most astounding thing about the Scottish example is that it shows that a relatively minor intervention in the market by the state makes a massive difference to society. The state can dramatically change social norms.

And here is the shocking truth: most of the world’s problems are technically easy to solve – but they involve challenging power.

Let’s look at some examples:

The Environment and Climate Change

Climate change is an emergency that threatens us all. It’s driven by our addiction to fossil fuels, which also leads to the environmental devastation of fracking and tar sand extraction. But it’s quite feasible to provide enough solar electricity to power the entire world in a relatively small patch of North African desert.

The red squares represent the area that would be enough for solar power plants to produce a quantity of electricity consumed by the world today, in Europe (EU-25) and Germany (De).

The red squares represent the area that would be enough for solar power plants to produce a quantity of electricity consumed by the world today, in Europe (EU-25) and Germany (De).

A distributed system – an international grid connected to wind, wave and tidal projects in other countries – would be resilient, and would hugely benefit humanity.

It would also provide a tens of thousands of new, skilled jobs, all over the world, to build and maintain the network. Good jobs in North Africa, would ease some of the political tension, and the lure of extremism, and help stem the tide of desperate migrants flocking to Europe.

Using clean public transport and promoting cycling, we could transform our cities into green, pleasant and liveable spaces. With a little international coordination and planning, we could agree to ban or heavily tax anything that isn’t easy to recycle – and solve the pollution problem in a few years.

Wages and living standards

We are told that a Living Wage and decent secure jobs is a political impossibility. Businesses will leave, and our economy will collapse. So we are trapped in zero hour contracts at wages that aren’t enough to live on. We can’t afford to get on the housing ladder for outrageously overpriced, bubble-fuelled homes, and so we’re stuck in precarious rented accommodation. We have tens of thousands in student debt, and no pensions. We face a demographic crisis: when this generation becomes too old to work, there is no provision for them.

And yet we are told, simply, that this is the way we live now: we need to just accept it.

But a living wage is a fixed cost – it’s what it costs to keep a human being alive and able to work. Pay any less, and you’re being subsidised – by the state, by friends and family, or by workers taking out pay day loans. Any economy that can’t pay a living wage is fundamentally flawed.

And if wages did rise dramatically, business would cope. If union action and social pressure made it necessary, business would adapt, just as it is adapting to the large pay rise being driven by the Fight for $15 campaign in the USA right now. Maybe shareholders would have to take a profit hit, or CEOs and senior managers forego massive bonuses. But capitalism is resilient – it can cope with paying decent wages.

The irony is that paying proper wages is good for capitalism too: workers with money in their pockets spend that money, stimulating demand from below. But business leaders are their own worst enemy – as individualists, they are unable to act in their collective best interest, and prefer race to the bottom destructive competition.

Greece and the Eurozone crisis

"The End of Austerity", by estebanned on Deviantart.

“The End of Austerity”, by estebanned on Deviantart.

Greece is presented as an intractable problem, that the best political and economic minds in Europe have been unable to solve. And yet it is pretty simple. The country has been turned into a debt colony for the paltry sum of €360. It sounds like a lot, but when the banks were in trouble, they got $29 trillion of taxpayers’ money, with virtually no questions asked. RBS alone got far more than Greece needs.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is the sort of critic of capitalism who understands the system better than its proponents. As he explains, he thinks the system is fundamentally flawed – but that the best and least painful thing is to rescue the capitalist ideologues from themselves.

He studied the crisis in detailed, and worked out a plan. He wrote about the origins of the crisis, and potential solutions, in  great depth in The Global Minotaur, and in interviews with anyone who would listen, including ourselves.

Varoufakis assumed that by presenting a logical and coherent response to the crisis, major strides could be made to resolving it. He was wrong: the Troika didn’t want a resolution – they wanted a brutal experiment in austerity. Greece voted for an alternative, and an example had to be made.

Funding public services

We are told that there is no money left for public services. We will have to start paying for privatised health care, libraries and museums will shut, and national parks will be fracked. This is presented as inevitable and unavoidable.

Robin Hood Tax campaign

And yet simply collecting what is owed by tax dodging corporations would make a huge difference. Actually raising tax on the rich would transform public life. This is where the Robin Hood Tax would make such a major difference: it’s a minute tax on international financial transactions. It would be about as inconvenient to global finance – the banks that got us into this mess – as the 5p the Scottish Government charges on plastic bags.

And yet it would do two important things: it would raise vast sums of money, for big infrastructure projects like the Green Jobs mentioned above. And it would act as a slight disincentive to some of the most marginal and risky financial transactions. It would make the global economy fairer and more stable.

The extreme centre

We could go on. The world has some serious problems, but most of them are not beyond our ability to solve. The ideologues of neoliberal capitalism agree that there are many problems in the world, but disagree that we should do anything about it: any planned response is a disastrous encroachment on freedom that will lead us on a road to serfdom. Instead, we should trust the market to develop and deliver a solution.

But the market didn’t find a solution to plastic bag pollution – the Scottish Government did.

Worship the hand

Worship the hand

This religious faith in the market is quite remarkable in the way it resists all evidence: when their model collapses against the rocky shore of reality, neoliberal ideologues demand a new reality rather than changing their model.

All of the solutions mentioned here don’t even require the end of capitalism – just for the system to be managed effectively. Managing capitalism has been the essential project of social democracy: capitalism is like nuclear power – a dynamic generator that is also extremely dangerous and needs to be managed carefully.

But the elite refuse to accept any management, and restrictions on their freedom, and the social democratic parties have capitulated to their vision. We face the apparent end of ideology – politicians are just managers of a capitalist realism we must all accept as the end of history.

But the idea that There is No Alternative is of course highly ideological. This is the major victory of the right: their system is dangerous and dysfunctional, but they have convinced enough people that it is the least worst alternative – including three of the four candidates for leadership of the UK Labour Party.

This is why the possible victory of left wing challenger Corbyn attracts such a mixture of scorn and vitriol:  any insurgency against capitalist realism must be neutralised – from Syriza in Greece, to the Scottish independence referendum, to Corbyn. A Corbyn victory and a revitalised, campaigning Labour Party would be a serious challenge to corporate dominance.

Capitalism is no longer compatible with democracy. As the UK Trade Union Bill shows, if we will not be ruled by consent, then we will be ruled by force.

We cannot cede this ideological ground. We cannot accept their vision of authoritarian capitalism and environmental degradation as the only option for our planet.

We need to insist that there are alternatives. We need to fight for them: in political parties, in communities and in the workplace.

Because the truth is that we can change the world – but we need to take power back from the rich to do it.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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