How to change a destructive system

Sam Wainwright is a Socialist Alliance councillor in Fremantle. Below is a talk he gave on the topic of how to achieve social change in Australia.

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It's pretty obvious for anyone that cares to look that capitalism is a socially destructive and ecologically unsustainable system.

Based on the unequal distribution of wealth, it condemns billions to living in poverty worldwide.

In more wealthy places like Australia, where workers have much higher incomes, capitalism invents products for us to spend money on just as quickly as we win a wage increase. That we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world is but one proof that it doesn't provide people with a meaningful existence.

Now the worsening climate crisis — caused by capitalism’s endless accumulation of profit and wealth — threatens the very basis of life on earth.

Paradoxically the solutions lie around unused. The Beyond Zero Emissions team have estimated that Australia could shift to 100% renewable energy for all its electricity production by 2020 for less than the cost of one cup of coffee per day per Australian.

It's not a lack of technology or knowledge that blocks meaningful action on climate change, but the very system of capitalist ownership which profits from misery and destruction. Socialists are often painted as naïve day-dreamers. But the mirage of green capitalism is our living nightmare.

If we had democratic control over strategic economic decision making — a socialist society — we could already be on the road to a clean energy. But how to wrest control of our society out of the hands of big business? In abstract it's easy, "One solution. Revolution".

The workers and farmers of the world produce its wealth. If one day they could seize control of the land, factories, banks, mines, transportation and telecommunications systems. If they could brush aside the governments and state machines that rule on behalf of the super-rich, and replace them with new democratic systems that represented the majority, then we could really begin the task of creating a society based on human need and sustainability.

While this simplified “instant coffee” vision of revolution makes it easy to describe, it makes it harder to imagine it ever happening, especially in Australia.

So many working people are influenced by pro-capitalist ideas. Others agree that the system sucks, but can't imagine it being any different. The democratic and revolutionary transformation of society is a nice but unlikely fantasy.

Capitalism doesn't require enthusiastic consent — pessimistic resignation is fine. So how do we convince people to get involved in the struggle for a better world?

It's the very economic, social and political crises of capitalism itself that will draw large numbers of people into action against it. Because   of this we try to encourage and develop any and every struggle against the injustices of capitalism, whether it’s a campaign to stop coal seam gas or win equal pay for women.

It's only through such struggles that most people will come to see capitalism for what it is and get a taste of their potential power for change. The majority of people will not be won to socialism in the abstract, it must become a practical question.

But it's not enough just to be involved in immediate struggles. Armed with the experience of history and tested political ideas, socialists seek to respond to capitalism's crises with solutions that point to the need for a different kind of society and economy.

A struggle for socialism is a struggle for more democracy. This includes democratic control over the economy.

Marx and Lenin were spot on when they described the political regime we live under as a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” However they were writing at a time when most working men, let alone women, had not even won the right to vote. So the language socialists use needs to acknowledge this and champion the democratic rights we do enjoy, no matter how incomplete and fragile they are. After all they were won through hard and bitter struggle.

We need more representation, citizen participation, participatory budgeting, elected but recallable officials, freedom of information, proportional representation, referenda and democracy in the workplace. It's the extension of democracy, most especially in the workplace and economic decision making that is incompatible with capitalism.

Society cannot be transformed through purely legal parliamentary means without a decisive and revolutionary rupture with capitalism. The capitalists will never peacefully surrender their power and privilege no matter the legalities. The long blood-stained list of democratically elected governments overthrown with the help of the CIA is proof of that.

But the struggle for more democratic reforms, serious wealth redistribution and to defend a popular pro-worker government against sabotage and coup plotting by the capitalists may very well be the terrain where such a decisive struggle over political and economic power comes to a head. This has been the experience of Venezuela. The coup plotters have been stopped, repeatedly, by the massive mobilisation of the country's poor in the streets and in the workplaces.

In the 2013 federal election Socialist Alliance will be campaigning for policies to nationalise the banks and mining companies, to bring them under democratic community ownership and control. We want to get people thinking about the need to break the power of big business over our political, economic and social life. There is just no possibility of enduring social justice or environmental sustainability without it. It's something we' all have to fight for.