Climate change: Overcoming the division
Robert Eagleton offers his comments on the floods that have hit south-west England
Over the past few months floods have laid waste to parts of the south-west; the majority of the destruction has occurred in the counties of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, where thousands of hectares of land have been covered in water. Since December last year 7,500 properties have been flooded, whilst road and train networks have been submerged, leaving thousands of people unable to travel.1 Dozens of properties remain flooded, and hundreds are still without electricity and the means of communication.2 The violent weather patterns have also claimed the life of one unfortunate woman in Sussex, whilst also causing the emergency rescue of six stranded fishermen.3
Residents struggling to cope with the severe disruption subsequently discovered that they were initially being charged 41p per minute if they had to call the official, privately run helpline designated to assist flood victims. This forced the government to step in to provide a new helpline, although you still have to pay 10p per minute. The government tried to claim credit for its “robust response” when Owen Paterson, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, announced a doubling of the £100,000 currently being spent each week to alleviate the damage. However, in view of the widespread complaints by victims claiming that they have been left to cope on their own, it is highly doubtful the Conservatives will be able to reap the kind of electoral benefit achieved by Barack Obama during the 2012 United States presidential election, when the publicity generated by his response to the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy saw the Republican Party’s challenger, Mitt Romney, relegated to secondary news days before polls opened.
Every year Britain faces snow or flooding which paralyses transport networks and every year politicians promise to put in place precautionary measures, only for people in the affected areas to be confronted with the same problems 12 months down the line. This is not just incompetence, but is endemic in a society where work is organised primarily on the basis of production for profit. It is difficult to make much out of victims of a disaster – even though you can try it on with premium-rate phone lines.
What has surprised me, however, is the way in which social alienation has been reflected in some responses to the flooding. Many are not overly concerned with the plight of the victims, perhaps because it is hard to feel a sense of empathy for people who live a completely different life from you. Partially this lack of empathy is due to the great disparities between town and country and occasionally it takes the form of blaming the victim. I have heard comments like ‘Serves them right for living in flood-prone areas’ or ‘Why should I pay through my taxes for flood defences I won’t ever use?’ Unlike in America, where environmental catastrophes may impact on many millions, in Britain they tend only to affect localised communities severed from the rest of society via a veil of alienation.
This gulf between town and country is so wide that it prompted the head of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, to declare there is “no bottomless purse” for flood defences: ultimately the government had to chose its priorities between “town or country, front rooms or farmland”, he said.
Division of labour
This chasm is an issue communists must address in the interests of building a collective proletarian consciousness.
Karl Marx recalls in Capital how from the 17th century the rural masses in England were forced into the cities in search of work: “The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, had to obtain the value of the means of subsistence from his new lord, the industrial capitalist.”4Meanwhile, agricultural workers were cut off from their urban brothers and sisters. That is why communists call for the “re-establishment of an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and a reversal of the trend to concentrate the population in London and south-east England. Work and domestic life should be brought closer together”.5
We must, however, be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the social division of labour. For example, job specialisation does have its advantages – rather than one man building, say, his own car, capital has brought together groups of workers, each having a specific role, which allows cars to be manufactured with less waste in a fraction of the time. While it is clear that a workers’ state would need to maintain this division of labour to a certain degree, there is no reason why roles could not be rotated, allowing people to learn many skills.
We are unequivocally opposed to a return to some imagined ‘golden age’, whereby production was based upon an inefficient handicraft system. We need to harness what is positive in capitalism, subordinating production to the interests of the proletariat, and therefore humanity as a whole. As Lenin stated, “Communist society, as we know, cannot be built unless we restore industry and agriculture, and that not in the old way. They must be re-established on a modern basis, in accordance with the last word in science.”6
The need to “restore industry and agriculture … on a modern basis” is tied up with the task of overcoming the separation between the inhabitants of town and country. Towns and cities must be ‘de-urbanised’ in the sense that they must incorporate features of the countryside in the shape of large open spaces. Meanwhile rural areas must be modernised in order to break down the gulf between agriculture and industry. This would also facilitate the creation of a similar lifestyle and make mutual empathy more likely.
It is easy to dismiss the current division as something fairly trivial, but the need to overcome it cannot be emphasised enough. Whilst we are no longer living in the days when the rural masses might never even visit a city in their life, we still need to establish a collective consciousness – a task which must include the coming together of the proletariat’s differing constituent parts.
4. K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 27:www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch27.htm.
5. CPGB Draft programme: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/about-the-cpgb/draft-programme/3.-immediate-demands.
6. VI Lenin The tasks of the Youth Leagues (October1920):www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/oct/02.htm (emphasis added).