I was born in 1956, the eldest of four children in an extended family of home-makers, dockers and factory workers. I’m now 67 and, from those early days in Hull through to a working life around the UK, have been an active trade unionist. I care passionately about politics and, despite the obvious setbacks to the labour movement, retain hope in the capacity of working people to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power through democratic socialism.
My generation has experienced a profound transformation on a scale unprecedented in human history. The rapid industrialisation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, electrification in the early 20th century and two world wars, all had revolutionary consequences. But nothing has prepared us for the new era of the capitalocene, for the speed and scale of irreversible climate change and a future for working people that is catastrophic and terrifying.
Previous technological shifts were all signposts to modern civilization. The Roman empire’s valley-spanning aqueducts, the scientific discoveries following the Renaissance and the release of atomic energy, all could be celebrated for generating material wealth through the control of nature.
But those old certainties of progress have been shattered in the space of one lifetime. On a personal level, I find it hard to deal with the psychological damage and the sense of abandonment. Mine is the first and the last generation of working people that will have experienced, both great optimism over the potential future of industrial society, and despair through the realisation that capitalism is rapidly destroying human civilization and, potentially, all life on the planet. Given the immensity of what’s at stake, I keep asking myself why have I done so little to fight back?
I remember my early life on a newly-built council estate, on the outskirts of east Hull during the 1960s, as a prime example of progress through municipal socialism. The estate provided decent, rented housing to thousands of families, like my parents, whose own experience growing up was of cramped and poorly-built terraces with outside toilets.
There was a new primary school (previously, classes were held in a church hall), a public library and a park with football pitches, tennis courts and bowling greens. Above all, both at home and school, the expectation was that education opened up opportunities for working-class children in ways denied to previous generations, including the real prospect of a place at university.
Life felt pretty uncomplicated. As kids we were left to our own devices, playing football with coats as goalposts or cycling to the Holderness villages further out from the city. One of our favourite spots was the hill known locally as the Dump on the edge of the estate. Hull had been heavily bombed during the Second World War and the debris was transported there before being grassed over. A stream ran round the back that had fish and insect life but it gradually turned foul with green algae.
Questioning my parents led to the usual response that pollution was unfortunate but a price to pay for industrial and agricultural development and for new jobs. Looking back, it is easy to be critical of their generation for indifference to the environment but that would be unfair. They had been through so many privations, including the poverty of the 1930s, the heavy bombing of Hull during the war when they had both been evacuated to the countryside, through to the rationing and austerity of the 1950s.
For the first time in their lives they had access to a range of consumer goods and wanted us to experience real, material comfort in ways that had been denied them for so long. Wages were still low and I remember serious arguments over money but through controlled rents, cheap coal for heating and affordable basic foods, all the essentials of life were provided, leaving enough money for entertainments like the cinema, concerts and annual holidays.
Trade Unionism and Political Education
Formative political experiences came in my mid-teens when dad was involved in the dockers’ campaigns to end casual labour, known locally as the Dint. (If you weren’t chosen on the day then you dint work.) I remember the press coverage of one picket and a photograph in the Daily Express under the banner ‘Face of the Mob’. The ‘mob’ included some of my dad’s mates who were angry because the police were pushing them back to the top of an embankment with a steep drop.
So my personal experience of trade unionism was as a combination of local actions directed to broader campaigns around the nationalisation of the docks, in turn, linked to support for trade-union actions in other industries. At the national level there was a clear intention to bring grass roots pressure on the Labour Party for a radical programme of public ownership. The vast resources of the right-wing media were used to demonise trade unionists as extremists for challenging capitalism and defending workers rights.
I studied politics at university and my intellectual curiosity was stimulated, particularly by the various writings on democratic ownership of industry and the tension between parliamentary representation through social-democratic parties and more radical, socialist agendas for public ownership and workers control.
Even then, serious concerns were being raised over the impact of capitalism on the environment. The figure that sticks in my memory from one study, was that continued carbon emissions might lead to the melting of the ice caps by the end of the 21st century and the raising of sea levels by three metres. My home city, like many others, would simply disappear under the waves.
Similarly, the work of the Club of Rome economists through the ‘Limits to Growth’ publications had a strong impact. If the trajectory of exponential growth continued then the supply of non-renewable resources would be put under severe strain and key minerals exhausted.
Such analysis, on the rare occasions it was given serious coverage by the mass media, was dismissed as alarmist. The history of capitalism had demonstrated a succession of technological innovations that improved energy efficiency and exploitation of resources. Nothing was allowed to challenge the capitalist growth model as the dynamic for increased prosperity.
Arms Conversion Research
Yet these critiques were compelling and I was able to carry out post-graduate research in the field of arms conversion that married issues of workers control, disarmament and environmental concerns. The major inspiration was the work of the Lucas Aerospace shop-stewards around the concept of socially-useful production.
Lucas was a major arms company that, in the mid 1970s, intended to carry out a redundancy programme across its UK sites because of a short-fall in military orders. The shop stewards organised an alternative plan that married the skills of the workers and technological capacities of the company with civil alternatives in areas like medical equipment, energy cells and hybrid road/rail transport. The simple proposition was that governments could transfer public spending from military to civil programmes in ways that directly benefited skilled employment and social and environmental need.
This led to my research with trade unionists at the Barrow shipyard in Cumbria, at the time of the first Trident, ballistic-missile submarine programme during the mid-1980s and early 1990s. We put forward the case for Barrow to be the focus of a marine-technology research and development centre, through a sustained expansion of renewable energy and through the manufacture of both, offshore and onshore wind turbines, using funds redirected from the cancellation of Trident.
But this was a period of deindustrialisation and mass unemployment under Conservative governments ideologically determined on the destruction of the trade union movement and the privatisation of public assets. Any radical proposals, such as arms conversion based on workers plans, were simply dismissed.
Like many on the left, my response to this assault on working people was defensive, supporting campaigns against job losses and cuts to public services. Politically, the focus was on the return of a Labour government, recognising the limited nature of the social-democratic framework on offer and the weakened state of the labour movement.
Having family responsibilities and dealing with health issues while earning a living was also a challenge, when still trying to devote energy to political campaigns. But I remember a growing sense of unease as a series of climate-change reports began to paint an ever-bleaker picture of global heating, with a range of impacts such as increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions.
I continued to make the case for arms conversion through various trade union and peace movement reports in the hope of influencing public policy. But my perspective, that we could only achieve fundamental change through a labour movement that combined direct action and mass campaigning with a democratic socialist programme, was only reinforced by the immense challenge of rapidly decarbonising the economy.
The Capitalocene and Irreversible Climate Change
The term capitalocene encapsulates the unprecedented scale of the crisis facing us. Its focus is on capitalist relations of production from the early years of the industrial revolution and on the impact of fossil fuels. The main outcomes were a massive division in wealth and power between an elite of capitalist owners and working people, as well as growing emissions of carbon dioxide leading to global heating.
Coal was essential in the early stages of industrialisation but it was the transition to oil as the dominant energy source that brought us into the capitalocene era, threatening irreversible climate change. Oil provided a far more energy-efficient output than coal, as well as basic material for a range of petrochemical industries, including plastics and synthetic fibres. This was a globalised, capitalist system generating enormous profits for the giant fossil-fuel corporations as carbon emissions continued to increase.
The other essential element of the capitalocene was an imperial system to protect the interests of the fossil-fuel corporations and capitalist elites. The United States emerged from the Second World War with overwhelming military superiority and a network of bases that stretched from the Pacific to continental Europe. But the strategic priority was securing access to the vast oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. Various alliances were made with authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, supported by the sale of armaments.
1956 symbolises the strategic origins of the capitalocene, as European colonialism was brought formally to a close after the Suez crisis. The United States straddled the world as the first, petrochemical empire and permanent military-industrial complex, guaranteeing supremacy over regional powers like the the USSR, and latterly, China.
Governments and international institutions have been captured by the interests of petrochemical imperialism. Despite some progress on renewable energy, the gap between actual production and potential capacity is enormous and carbon emissions are at historically high levels. The priority remains to protect the investment plans of the major energy corporations in fossil fuels and related industries over the next fifty years, and of the military-industrial complex in both conventional and nuclear weapons.
This is the truly, terrifying future of the capitalocene. Global heating is locked in and causes irreversible damage to all the major ecosystems of the planet that are poisoned, depleted and, ultimately, exhausted. At the same time, vast public resources that could have been used to create a post-carbon economy are wasted on rearmament, fuelling militarism and the constant threat of war between the imperial powers.
Alternatives to the Capitalocene
Faced with such a terrifying future it is not surprising that many people feel overwhelmed and helpless. My sense of loss stems, not from helplessness, but a profound sadness. Even now, a clear framework and timescale exists for the rapid decarbonising of the economy. The Just Transition agenda, supported by trade unions and environmental groups, sets out plans for the expansion of renewable energy through public funding, as well as the retraining of workers from the fossil-fuel sector. But, as long as governments provide incentives for new fossil-fuel investment, such proposals will continue to be marginalised.
The labour movement can only overcome this power imbalance by reinvigorating the radical agenda for a socialist economy constructed through public ownership and democratic control of industry. The existential threat of the climate crisis has to be acknowledged and resources mobilised on a scale only previously achieved during war. Manufacturing capacity must be focused on a renewable energy infrastructure funded through wealth taxes and an arms conversion programme.
Just as it would have been unthinkable in the Second World War to continue with the manufacture of luxury cars when that industrial capacity was needed for the war effort, the same priorities must apply now to eliminating fossil-fuel investment and funding the rapid transition to a post-carbon economy.
Beyond this emergency programme is a broader, socialist vision on the rebuilding of a vibrant, working-class politics. There will be intense debate over a range of policies such as de-growth and whether it is possible to provide a good quality of life while significantly reducing the material throughput of non-renewable resources. But that debate has to engage with all working-class communities and achieve a broad consensus that reflects the priorities for social utility rather than private profit.
Every capitalist crisis has done precisely the opposite, extending the immense gap in wealth and power between the elites and working people and tightening the straitjacket of austerity economics. The financial meltdown of 2007/08, the pandemic and the recent inflationary surges have been used by successive governments to cut public services and extend anti-trade union laws, at the same time, protecting the asset values of the rich elites and corporate shareholders that are secreted in offshore tax havens.
Trade unions, to their immense credit, have played a significant role in challenging austerity through successful wage campaigns, including direct action and strikes. But it remains the case that many settlements barely match inflation and this, after decades in which wages have remained stagnant. In electoral terms, supporters of a democratic-socialist agenda are expected to accept austerity and militarism under a future Labour government. The fact that even modest levels of funding for renewable energy programmes cannot be guaranteed, demonstrates the chasm that exists between the policies on offer and the scale of the challenge.
The rapid transition to a post-carbon economy can provide skilled work for millions of people, as part of a wider range of public investment such as support for local authorities in council-house building and public transport that directly benefit working-class communities. Trade unions will have a vital role to play through mass campaigns and direct action if those ambitions for a socialist economy are to be achieved. But time is running out.
If I had to face the younger version of myself today, I know the first thing he would ask is how did we let things get so bad. Public squalor, the housing crisis, foodbanks, the collapse of local authorities, the massive income inequalities between rich and poor, and climate breakdown were not inevitable.
My defence would be to argue how the sustained assault on trade unions since the 1980s has seriously undermined their capacity for direct action. But deep down I know that it was precisely because the attack was so intense and brutal that I should have done much more to fight back. Instead, my politics was a slow form of retreat and surrender.
Trade unions, from their very foundation, were inspired by the vision of progress through democratic socialism and of peace in solidarity with working people around the world; that through collective action we could be the agents of history and not its victims. Despite all the difficulties and obstacles, the labour movement still has the strength and organisation to mount a sustained campaign for an international, socialist future.
Knowing what’s at stake, my younger self would accuse me of betrayal, not only of previous generations of working people who fought against overwhelming odds to defend their class interests, but also future generations abandoned to the destruction of their communities through irreversible climate change. As we spiral down into the end times of the capitalocene, he’d be right.
Steven Schofield, February 2024