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Our Best Shot at Meeting Paris Goals? Make Energy Public

By Sarah van Gelder - Yes! Magazine, July 9, 2017

Mayors across the country have vowed to deliver on the goals of the Paris climate accord in defiance of President Trump’s decision to back out. But how can they, realistically, when the national government is questioning climate science and promoting coal, fracking, and pipelines?

Simply put: Make energy public. Instead of privatizing city services, as some policymakers have long advocated, a new report shows that public ownership gives cities and towns the best shot at meeting renewable energy and efficiency targets.

Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatization,” a study by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, challenges the ideas that governments are ineffective service providers, that private companies are more efficient, and that austerity budgeting and reductions in public service are inevitable.

Cities and towns that want well-run water and sanitation services, low-cost access to the internet, and affordable housing should keep those operations public or run by local nonprofits, the report found. If these services are now private, the institute recommends “re-municipalization.”

The report is based on research involving 1,600 cities in 45 countries that have chosen public ownership over corporate ownership, especially of their energy and water systems. “These (re)municipalisations generally succeeded in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability,” the report concludes.

Both Hamburg, Germany, and Boulder, Colorado, for example, are making their electric power enterprises public in order to shift to green and renewable energy sources.

In France, 106 cities and towns have taken over their local water systems in the past 15 years, in spite of the fact that France is home to some of the world’s largest private water companies. During that time, the report found that no French cities went the other direction and privatized their water system.

The report focuses on water and energy services, but there are many other services that benefit from local public ownership—some unexpected. The French towns of Mouans-Sartoux and Ungersheim bought farmland and hired local farmers to supply organic produce for school lunches. In India, the Tamil Nadu government opened dozens of public low-cost restaurants run by impoverished women to feed the poor. Argentina privatized postal services in 1997, but just six years later, renationalized the service in response to the private company’s poor service and high prices.

Privatization is tempting; it can provide local governments with short-term cash infusions. What politician doesn’t like to fill a budget hole without raising taxes? But the infusions don’t last. The private companies must pay large sums to their shareholders and executives, which they often do by cutting corners on upkeep, wages, and services, or jacking up customers’ rates. Instead of circulating locally, that money leaves a city’s economy.

According to the report, once a service is turned over to a private company, many cities found it was difficult to maintain accountability. They faced cost overruns, poor service, and violations of contracts. Many found they saved money and improved services when services went back into public hands.

Although family-owned or worker-owned businesses and consumer cooperatives are essential to local economies, some services—like water and sanitation—are best operated at a municipal or regional scale, and multiple providers may not make sense. In cases of these natural monopolies, local public ownership especially makes sense.

Like an ecosystem, a functioning local economy requires diversity. It needs many forms of ownership and types of entities. To thrive over years, each entity must both give and take; they must be in relationship with the people, institutions, and ecosystems that make up each community. When a local economy is dominated by enterprises that work to extract value for Wall Street banks or corporations controlled by absentee owners, communities are drained of their common wealth. It is that concern that drives much of the opposition to big international trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which critics say favor corporate rights over those of local government.

On the other hand, local entities, whether operated by worker-owners, families, nonprofit enterprises, or local governments, seek out multiple bottom lines—multiple benefits for employees, young people, vulnerable residents, and other local enterprises. They also take responsibility for their own human and natural communities. That is how We the People and the natural world can thrive for the long term.

Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

By Kate Aronoff  - Dissent, Summer 2017

One glaring omission in the postmortem handwringing about the 2016 election is the fact that most poor people in America—of all races and genders—simply didn’t vote. They were prevented from doing so by a number of structural barriers—voting restrictions, second and third jobs, far-flung polling locations—as well as a lack of excitement about two parties they saw as having abandoned them.

Enter: twenty-first-century electric cooperatives, a perhaps unlikely player in the contest for power between progressives and conservatives in the heart of so-called Trump country in rural America.

If there’s one thing poor, rural communities tend to have in common, it’s where they get their power—not political power, but actual electricity. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives (RECs)—owned and operated by their members—stretch through forty-seven states, serving 42 million ratepayers and 11 percent of the country’s demand for electricity. They also serve 93 percent of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” 85 percent of which lie in non-metropolitan areas. REC service areas encompass everything from isolated farm homes to mountain hollers to small cities, with the highest concentrations in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. And they might just offer an opportunity to curb the right and the climate crisis alike.

Nominally democratic, RECs have the ability to transform a sizable chunk of America’s energy sector—one of the highest-polluting parts of our economy. Servicing ratepayers whose top agenda may not be climate change, the push to integrate renewables into RECs’ energy mix nonetheless grounds the transition away from carbon-intensive fuels in something more material: energy bills. Member-owner reformers dotting the map of red and rural America are already waging fights over their cooperatives on two fronts: for basic representation and for energy efficiency. Their work—combining a zeal for small-d democracy with one for bringing down emissions—could hold the key to making sure the transition away from fossil fuels includes some of the poorest places in the country on the ground floor. Crucially, it could also help extend our much heralded clean energy revolution beyond liberal enclaves like New York and California. If successful, reformed RECs could give progressives a much needed foothold in places the Democratic Party has long since abandoned. They might also help greens refocus fights onto pocketbook issues.

Understanding the RECs’ radical potential, however, means understanding their history. Rural electrification was intended to accomplish one goal: to serve people neglected by the private sector. At the start of the Great Depression, some 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity. For private utilities (the only game in town at the time) extending power lines to customers spread out over tens or hundreds of miles simply wasn’t worth the cost—especially considering that the vast majority of those potential customers happened to be poor.

Should the left build an alternative energy commons?

By Patricia S. Mann - Climate and Capitalism, September 12, 2017

What could ignite a massive grassroots struggle to replace our fossil fueled capitalist system with a sustainable and just postcapitalist system? According to Marx and Engels historical materialist analysis in The German Ideology, a radical theory, and the revolutionary practices it supports must originate in the historical and material conditions of daily life, and specifically in the lived contradictions of daily life.[1] Such an analysis in the 19th Century supported their theory of a revolutionary proletariat and workplace struggles seeking to seize control of existing means of production.

However, a 21st Century application of historical materialist methodology supports a new theory of mass struggle, grounded in some very different lived contradictions in the daily lives of 21st Century fossil fuel users and abusers. As well as in new technologies capable of addressing these lived contradictions.

Contemporary Marxist theorists readily acknowledge some 21st C developments in capitalism. Sam Gindin suggests that contemporary capitalism rests on three legs: neoliberalism, financialization, globalization.[2] I would simply add that contemporary capitalism can only be comprehended if we recognize that it rests uneasily on a fourth leg, as well, catastrophic, fossil fuel-based climate change.

A Marx-inspired anticapitalist Left acknowledges climate change as the preeminent contradiction of capitalism today. (Capitalism will end, in either a catastrophic climactic 6th extinction, or in our last minute achievement of a sustainable post-capitalist society.) This Marx-inspired Left also embraces new technologies enabling a grass-roots politics of microproduction and sharing of renewable energy.

This microproduction and sharing of renewable energy should become the foundational dynamic of a global struggle for a post-capitalist commons, a sustainable energy-based post-capitalist commons.

Emphasizing the many sources of cheap renewable energy – not just sun and wind, but also hydro, geothermal heat, biomass, ocean waves and tides – Jeremy Rifkin maintains that with minimal capital investments in individual homes and local buildings, current technology could enable millions of people globally to become microproducers of renewable energy at “near zero marginal cost.”[3] Moreover, it will be a simple matter for microproducers of renewable energy to connect with others over an energy internet, creating local, regional, ultimately global networks of energy producers and consumers, sharing sustainable energy produced at minimal cost within the networks of energy producers and consumers.

Rifkin argues that these new technologies of renewable energy production, in combination with technologies of internet communication create the basis for a paradigm shift. Our contemporary system of capital-intensive, centralized, profit-generating fossil fuel energy production and distribution can be replaced by networks of individual microproducers and sharers of renewable energy. Rifkin’s analysis highlights democratizing, collaborative features of a decentralized, peer-to-peer, laterally scaled, renewable energy network of microproducers and consumers, supportive of a post-capitalist commons.

However, without a mass movement, without a Marx-inspired anticapitalist politics, seeking to develop a renewable energy commons off-the-capitalist-grid, these new technologies of renewable energy, and the internet grids for sharing it, will simply be absorbed by capitalism, commercially enclosed by capitalist energy grids. Transforming capitalism rather than displacing it.

Without a replacement strategy and a mass struggle to create and maintain an alternative grid, there is every reason to think the new technologies of green energy microproduction will simply contribute to a new form of what Jason Moore has called “cheap energy,” providing capitalism with a much-needed new source of surplus value.[4] And subsumed within a profit and growth based dynamics of global capitalism, these new technologies will not enable us to avoid catastrophic climate change. – Bechtel, typically the first in line for government subsidized corporate investments, has already made a huge investment in solar energy in the Mojave Dessert.[5]

There is no time to be lost. Capitalist commercial enclosure of this new sustainable energy commons will be rapid, at some not so distant point in time.

Full Report from an “International Meeting on the Energy Mix and the Commons” – Buenos Aires, Argentina (English)

By admin - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, September 27, 2017; English translation provided by Daniel Chavez of this original report.

The Energy Mix and the Commons

On 4-5 September 2017, an International Meeting on the Energy Mix and the Commons was held at the ATE National trade union’s main office, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The meeting was framed within a broader process of exchange of knowledge and experiences on climate and energy policies in Argentina, Latin America and the world. The Argentinian State Workers’ Association (Spanish acronym ATE; acronyms will be for Spanish names where applicable) and the Autonomous Argentinean Workers’ Congress (CTA-A) are engaged in international processes towards the construction of regional and global alternatives, in particular the Development Platform of the Americas (PLADA) and the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) initiative. The PLADA platform was conceived within the framework of the Trade Unions Confederation of the Americas (TUCA; CSA in Spanish) as a strategic political proposal centred around four dimensions—political, economic, social and environmental—aiming to contribute to the design and implementation of a regional model for sustainable development. PLADA proposes a gradual reduction in the use of fossil fuels, the universalisation of access to energy services, and the rationalization of those sectors of the economy that pollute the most. TUED, a global network composed of workers’ confederations and trade unions, focuses on democratizing generation, distribution and consumption of energy around the world.

The meeting was organised by ATE and CTA-A, with the support of the Transnational Institute (TNI, a worldwide network of scholar-activists based in the Netherlands) and the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of State Workers (CLATE).

(TUED Bulletin #68) The Invisible Crisis of Wind and Solar Energy–and the Urgent Need for a Public Approach

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, December 5, 2017

Why, in a world awash with “idle capital” and in desperate need for a just energy transition to renewables-based energy systems, are global investment levels in renewable energy so obviously out of sync with climate targets?

According to a 2016 report released by the International Energy Agency, “Market-based, unsubsidised low-carbon investments have been negligable.” Without public money, the levels of modern renewable energy would be abysmally low. The tenth TUED Working Paper, Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy describes how public money is papering over the fundamental failures of so-called “competitive” electricity markets. Public financing is increasingly being used to provide “certainties” for private companies and investors in the form of “power purchase agreements” or PPAs. PPAs make renewable energy expensive and vulnerable to the kind of political backlash we’ve seen across Europe and elsewhere. As a result, the entire energy sector becomes starved of investment and saturated in “political risk.”

“Preparing a Public Pathway” is available for download now (PDF)

From the Working Paper:

The dominant policy institutions have concluded that the market model that emerged from privatization and liberalization has proven to be an impediment to the kind of energy transition that is required. These same institutions instruct governments to increase their role as enablers of investment, by absorbing risk, providing support, and guaranteeing revenues and returns through P3s and PPAs.

The introduction of “capacity payments” speaks to the extent to which the “competitive market” is not only no longer competitive, it can no longer be usefully described as a market. Rather, we see governments, trying to ensure the energy-demand needs of the entire system are met, paying for unused electrical power—from both incumbent utilities and renewables companies—in order to ensure that all providers walk away with “returns on investment” that they (and the investors behind them) consider “satisfactory.”

One of the main goals of Preparing a Public Pathway is to provoke discussion among unions and their allies about the need to further cultivate a pro-public trade union counter-narrative that is clear, bold and persuasive, and—given the formidable nature of the challenge—offers some hope of decisively interceding in the global energy system’s worrying trajectories. Such a narrative must be able to assert, confidently and from an informed perspective, that only a planned, coordinated, publicly driven approach to investment has a credible chance of delivering the dramatically scaled up deployment of renewable power that we urgently need.

The Poverty of Luxury Communism

By QQ - LibCom.Org, April 5, 2018

A spectre is haunting Europe and the US, the spectre of... productivist national protectionism from the Left. QQ and Mike Harman respond to Novara Media and Jacobin Magazine.

"One form of wage labour may correct the abuses of another, but no form of wage labour can correct the abuse of wage labour itself." – Marx (Grundrisse)

Should Unions Strike for a Just Transition?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 10, 2017

After more than a decade of tenacious union lobbying of government negotiators, the words “a just transition of the workforce” was written into the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But now what? Encouraged by Paris, unions around the world have committed fresh energy towards giving Just Transition some practical significance, otherwise it will remain little more than a moral appeal for fairness in a corporate-dominated world economy where both morality and fairness are increasingly scarce.

This Bulletin features an article by TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney on the recent commitment made by unions in South Africa to strike for a “just transition.” However, the goal of the threatened strike is to halt the plan of the national utility (Eskom) to close 5 coal-fired power stations, a move that threatens 40,000 jobs.  Titled “When Stopping Coal Plant Closures Makes Environmental Sense” the article, which first appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of New Labor Forum, urges environmentalists not to support the closures, but to join with unions in opposing Eskom’s proposed actions.  Supporting the closures, argues Sweeney is “a poisoned chalice,”  that “will separate the environmental movement from the unions with whom it should be allied. And whatever environmental gains the 5 closures might produce at the margins in terms of avoided emissions and pollution levels will be more than offset by the impact of ‘jobs versus environment’ political fragmentation. This is why the Eskom closures should be opposed, but opposed in a way that might lay the political foundations for a more fundamental energy transition.”

Since the article was written, Eskom’s war with the private renewable energy companies has continued, with the utility pushing back against high-cost of power purchase agreements for wind and solar power. TUED union NUMSA and also the new South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) have called for a socially owned renewables sector in order to allow for a just energy transition from the present coal-dominated power system to one that can take advantage of South Africa’s abundant supplies of wind and sunshine.

This is What Energy Democracy Looks Like

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, February 25, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

With climate change looming, we are facing an energy emergency. How can unions fight for change?

TUED Bulletin #68: The Invisible Crisis of Wind and Solar Energy–and the Urgent Need for a Public Approach

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, December 5, 2017

Why, in a world awash with “idle capital” and in desperate need for a just energy transition to renewables-based energy systems, are global investment levels in renewable energy so obviously out of sync with climate targets?

According to a 2016 report released by the International Energy Agency, “Market-based, unsubsidised low-carbon investments have been negligable.” Without public money, the levels of modern renewable energy would be abysmally low. The tenth TUED Working Paper, Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy describes how public money is papering over the fundamental failures of so-called “competitive” electricity markets. Public financing is increasingly being used to provide “certainties” for private companies and investors in the form of “power purchase agreements” or PPAs. PPAs make renewable energy expensive and vulnerable to the kind of political backlash we’ve seen across Europe and elsewhere. As a result, the entire energy sector becomes starved of investment and saturated in “political risk.”

“Preparing a Public Pathway” is available for download now (PDF)

From the Working Paper:

The dominant policy institutions have concluded that the market model that emerged from privatization and liberalization has proven to be an impediment to the kind of energy transition that is required. These same institutions instruct governments to increase their role as enablers of investment, by absorbing risk, providing support, and guaranteeing revenues and returns through P3s and PPAs.

The introduction of “capacity payments” speaks to the extent to which the “competitive market” is not only no longer competitive, it can no longer be usefully described as a market. Rather, we see governments, trying to ensure the energy-demand needs of the entire system are met, paying for unused electrical power—from both incumbent utilities and renewables companies—in order to ensure that all providers walk away with “returns on investment” that they (and the investors behind them) consider “satisfactory.”

One of the main goals of Preparing a Public Pathway is to provoke discussion among unions and their allies about the need to further cultivate a pro-public trade union counter-narrative that is clear, bold and persuasive, and—given the formidable nature of the challenge—offers some hope of decisively interceding in the global energy system’s worrying trajectories. Such a narrative must be able to assert, confidently and from an informed perspective, that only a planned, coordinated, publicly driven approach to investment has a credible chance of delivering the dramatically scaled up deployment of renewable power that we urgently need.

Anything is possible when the multitude assembles

By Ben Trott - Red Pepper, October 25, 2017

From the Arab Spring and Occupy to the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2014, we have seen numerous recent movements and uprisings addressing people’s needs and desires, variously for democracy, for freedom, unshackling the people from the forces of reaction. And yet, they have failed to deliver on these radical desires; failed to create lasting change or a more democratic form of society. It is with this observation that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri open their compelling and provocative new book, Assembly. It confronts a history of failure that has dogged leftwing movements, often framed as a problem of ‘effectiveness’, and particularly the much-debated ‘problem of leadership’. Hardt and Negri root their analysis in contemporary social reality, asking the question – given these historic disappointments, what should a new left do if it is not altogether to abandon faith in social movements?

Hardt and Negri’s best-known book, Empire, was published at the turn of the century, just after the alter-globalisation movement had taken to the streets of Seattle, disrupting the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meeting. It argued that nation-states had become unable to guarantee and regulate capitalist production and accumulation, which were becoming truly global following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Chinese economy. According to the authors, sovereignty itself was shifting to the global level of Empire itself: a network of supranational organisations (including the WTO), transnational corporations, state and non-state actors.

One of the book’s distinctive characteristics was its break with what Walter Benjamin, and more recently the political theorist Wendy Brown, have described as ‘left melancholia’. This is the tendency for some on the left to attach themselves to particular political ideas – and even to the failure of these ideas – rather than seizing the present possibilities for transformation. By offering a radical re-thinking of democracy, and indeed of communism, Empire served as an antidote to left melancholia at the supposed ‘end of history’ – the moment when all thought of political alternatives have been rendered useless or meaningless by the overwhelming power of the contention that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to capitalism.

It cast the emerging Empire as destructive, but resisted nostalgia for earlier forms of domination. Moreover, it argued that ‘the multitude’, or the labour that animated the ‘postmodern’ global economy, worked in increasingly creative and collaborative ways, and that the multitude itself could potentially become capable of creating a ‘counter-Empire’, inventing new democratic forms and ‘an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.’

Assembly follows their books Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) in developing some of Empire’s arguments and conceptual categories, although it dedicates comparatively little space to geopolitics and global order. It offers instead the authors’ most detailed discussion of the present prospects for transformation, and in light of the movements that have emerged since the global crisis of 2007/8. Its chapters are punctuated by ‘calls’ and ‘responses’ that present an approach to thinking how the multitude can assemble more effectively. And indeed, how it can ‘take power’, not by winning elections but through the invention of new institutional forms, and through cooperation in social production.

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