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Laurie Penny: A response to Alex Callinicos

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance.

Let me say right from the start that I know I shouldn't do this. Arguing strategy with revolutionary leftist parties in a public forum is a little like discussing venereal disease at a children's birthday party: half the people there won't know or care what you're on about and the other half will start trying frantically to shush you in case you inadvertently reveal some oozing detail that relegates you to pariah status. Last week, however, I wrote an article for the Guardian that appears to have got me into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party and I'd like to respond to the ensuing brouhaha.

In the article, I wrote that the old organisational structures of revolution -- far-left parties, unions and splinter groups -- are increasingly irelevant to the movement that is building across Europe. The organisational structures, not the organisations themselves. The fact that there remains, in most communities in Britain, a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists with gloriously unreconstructed socialist sentiments and an inexhaustible energy for leafleting is just one more thing that makes me proud to live on this bitter little island. Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique but the essential idea of revolution and resistance is never going out of style. When students and young people say that the unions and far-left parties will have to follow our energy rather than seeking to lead and control it, we're not saying that the notion of a people's revolution isn't trendy anymore because it's somehow not 2.0 enough for us.

Alex Callinicos is right: students can't do it alone. Of course they can't. Nor can schoolkids or workers or people who are unemployed. That's what class solidarity is all about and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests. The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s, however, which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change, too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance, making them more anarchic, more inclusive and more creative. The function of the SWP over the course of these protests is an important example of how this can work. SWP activists are the street-fighting men and women of the far left and their energy and skill sets are vitally useful -- they have, accordingly, been involved in many of the high-profile actions that have taken place this winter, but they have not been leading from the front. SWP members have been most effective in conjunction with school pupils, anarchists, students and unaffiliated members who adapt their organic techniques to the changing nature of the whole. They have been least useful when trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker to children running away from horses.

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker's revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin's ideas about the function of a party paper -- that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals -- were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It's no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It's not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far-left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year's student revolutions have a background in far-left agitation and many more do not -- but nearly all of us know precisely what's at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It's far bigger than that.

As the sun went down over the Whitehall kettle and the icy winter wind began to bite, an extraordinary thing happened somewhere behind the police lines. I was huddled with a group of school kids and stiff, bewildered protesters around a dying fire made from exercise books and ripped-up bits of placard. We had hours yet before the police would let us free and nothing left to burn and, as we watched the embers fade away with mounting panic, a young man approached and asked if any of us would like to buy a copy of the Socialist Worker.

We rounded on him in desperation. None of us had any money but we were all freezing and we needed paper -- not to read but to burn. We begged him to give us even one paper and join us at the fire. A slew of emotions chased across the SWP seller's face as he considered this dilemma. Finally, he agreed to give us two copies, if, and only if, any of us could sing at least two verses of the Internationale. So we did -- me, some Neets and schoolkids from the slums of London -- our voices shaking a little from the chill. He handed over the papers with a smile and shuffled into the circle to warm up.

Ultimately, I'm not interested in whether you're a Leninist or a liberal or a Blairite or a Brownite or an anarchist or a concerned member of the public with no time for ideological flim-flammery. I'm interested in whether or not you're going to join me at the fire. I want to know if you're up for a fight. I want to know if you are prepared to put your body on the line to battle social oppression and fight the machinations of a dissembling government working to protect profit at the expense of the people. Because this is the future, not some cultish Petrograd-enactment society where we all dress up as revolutionaries and shout at each other for hours and then go home before anyone gets hurt. This is the future, it's happening now, and innocent people have already been hurt. The question is, are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.