Class, Ecology and the bin tax

In 2003 in Dublin over 20 people were jailed for resisting the imposition of the bin tax in Dublin. There were some who saw the bin tax struggle as being an example where the 'environmental agenda' is counterpoised to the 'working class' agenda. I don't and I think the few environmentalists who have supported the ruling class line in this have done great damage to the environmental cause. The bin tax pure and simple was about imposing the neo-liberal agenda, what some people call 'globalisation'. A core part of this agenda is to transfer the costs of running society from the rich and corporations to workers and the poor.

When a number of us were putting together the idea of the Grassroots Gatherings a few years back we spent a lot of time discussing terminology. This was because we were aware that the exposure to organisations like the Socialist Workers Party had left many grassroots activists very cautious of groups using terms like 'working class' or 'socialism'. So instead the statement includes the concepts behind these terms but using other words. Point 4 for instance reads that the network would "Organise for the control of the workplace by those who work there."

This gave people a chance to think about and agree with a set of concepts rather then the terms commonly used to describe those concepts. In no small part due to what calls itself the 'revolutionary left' these terms have been robbed of meaning for many activists. Well 6 Gatherings on I think we can start reclaiming some of these terms and this debate should be part of that reclamation.

The statement that the world we live in is divided into different classes with different interests seems so obvious to me that it is hardly worth stating. We live in a world where what Bill Gates earns in one day equals the combined earning of 14 million of the worlds poorest people. Or that for any of us to get Tony O'Reilly wealth we would have to win the lottery every week for 13 years. (He is worth around 1300 million).

The idea that we no longer live in a class society is very popular with the right. This is because it means that inequality is the fault of the poor. In extreme cases the 'poor' might need help out of the 'poverty trap' but that's where it ends. Otherwise we are, 'all individuals'.

I don't intend to get bogged down in precise definitions of class. What I will say that on this planet there are two very obvious classes. One of these holds most of the wealth and all of the power. It is not large in number, no more then a percent or two of the world's population. This is the ruling class and Tony O'Reilly, Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch are all individuals in that class. In the worlds largest economy, the USA, the top 1% own over 40% of the wealth

The other major class holds none of the power and almost none of the wealth. For us and our families to survive over the long term we have to work for the ruling class. This class is huge; well over 80% of the world's population, individuals in that class include Noel Kelly, Lisa Carroll and Finian Smyth.

Thos of you who are good with maths will note that adding the ruling class and the working class together gives you less then 100%. I don't intend to discuss the bit in the middle, for the story we are telling today they are not that important. The middle class may be the obsession of the media and the left, it should not be ours.

In 1995 Noam Chomsky spoke at a benefit for locked out workers in Illinois on the topic of "Class War: The Attack On Working People". He argued that for a long time the US had been in the grips of a vicious class war. But one conducted by the ruling class against what he termed 'working people'. Later in 1995 in response to a question on globalisation he extended this as follows

"This is class war on an international scale, and power is in the hands of those who control the international economic system. This framework does require extensive state power to protect the rich. The Saudi, Arabian ruling class, for example, have rights because they are performing a service for Western power, ensuring that oil profits go to the West and not to the regional population."

The debate is about 'class and the environment'. So what in general terms is the environmental relevancy of class.

1. The worst effects of pollution are often localised. If you are part of the ruling class you can simply move away from the poisoned river, the toxic landfill or the blighted landscape. If you are from the poorer sections of the working class you may well find that the only job you can get is in the chemical factory that is causing the problems in the first place and that the only home you can afford is next to the incinerator and on top of the old toxic dump that is leaching into the soil.

Rising sea levels due to global warming will kill millions of working class people in the years to come, in part because they can't afford to move, in part because taking the risk of working marginal land is something forced on the poor. . Locally every time there is significant flooding in Dublin it hits two working class communities the hardest, Ringsend and East Wall. The coastal areas where our local ruling class are located, Howth and Dalkey are well above sea level, with a fine view to boot. Needless to say it is also Ringsend that is threatened with an incinerator.

2. Pollution is in the interests of some. So too is global warming.

Millionaire share owners with significant holdings in oil companies for instance will become richer quicker the faster oil is sucked out of the ground. A carbon tax will reduce their wealth. Safety features like double hulled oil tankers will reduce their wealth. Enforcing the same safety features of North Sea or US oil production on Nigeria will reduce their wealth. Allowing some oil revenue to go to local communities will reduce their wealth. Stopping oil companies drilling in Alaska will reduce their wealth. Switching over to renewable energy will reduce their wealth. Even making cars more energy efficient will reduce their wealth.

Of course these people are no more then 1 or 2 percent of the population. So we might imagine that the interests of the 98% who get no profit from the oil industry would prevail. In the real world we already know this is not the case. Even in western democracies where in theory the people can effect government decisions at election times the oil companies have had shown little hesitation in simply buying the election. The oil and gas industry was one of Bush's top 10 contributors in Election 2000. Every US president this century has been a millionaire, indeed all of the current US cabinet are millionaires.

So the problem is not simply that the ruling class holds almost all the worlds' wealth. It also holds almost all of the decision making power. In fact the whole distinction between power and wealth is a bit meaningless as one is very easily turned into the other. Both Tony O'Reillys and Rubert Murdoch's massive wealth is invested in media. We already know that they determine the sort of stories that media puts out.

As long as we live in a world ruled by a small elite that not only has the wealth to escape from environmental degradation but actually makes a bigger profit by not doing anything about it the 'environmental problem' will never be solved. We will forever be in crisis with intervention only when the shit really threatens to hit the fan in a way that would threaten the profits of multinationals. Mass extinction they'd be keen to avoid as they need us both to work for them and buy from them. But they seem to reckon the world is already overpopulated, they can afford to lose a couple of billion of the sickest workers and poorest consumers.

Way back I mentioned three members of the ruling class, Tony O'Reilly, Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch that I'd guess everyone in the room has heard of. Then I mentioned Noel Kelly, Lisa Carroll and Finian Smyth whom some of you will certainly recognise but may have puzzled others. The three people I mentioned have all been jailed for protesting against the imposition of the bin tax on working class communities in Dublin. 18 others have been jailed alongside them to date.

There are some who see the bin tax as being an example where the 'environmental agenda' is counterpoised to the 'working class' agenda. I don't and I think the few environmentalists who have supported the ruling class line in this have done great damage to the environmental cause.

The bin tax pure and simple is about imposing the neo-liberal agenda, what some people call 'globalisation'. A core part of this agenda is to transfer the costs of running society from the rich and corporations to workers and the poor. And this is exactly what the bin tax is doing.

Remember we live in a time when we are constantly being told that there are not enough public funds for education or the health system. At the same time we see progressive taxes on profits and income being reduced, By progressive taxes I mean taxes which work on the basis that the more you earn the more you pay.

Joe Higgins wrote a report while in Mountjoy that highlighted this transfer "Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in 1987 wages and salaries of workers amounted to 59% of Gross Domestic Product while the profits and rents taken by the capitalists amounted to 41%. By 2001 the proportion going to workers had fallen to 46% while profits and rents had risen to 54%."

Taxes were driven down for corporations during a boom when they were making super profits. This meant that McCreevy could balance the books when the boom lasted. Now it has ended who is being asked to make up this shortfall. Corporate taxes are not set to rise, instead flat taxes like the bin tax are being rolled out on the one hand while on the other public services like Education and Health are allowed to deteorate. This also will hit the working class hardest, as the poorest sections simply face longer and longer waiting lists and the better earning sections see a larger and larger proportion of their income going into private healthcare etc.

Simply put the bin tax is class war, with as usual the bosses on the offensive. What is different about it is that quite large sections of the working class have been fighting back. Non payment in large areas of Dublin was as high as 80%. Mass meeting of hundreds of people were held. And that resistance outraged the ruling class.

Every section of the ruling class has mobilised in a very serious way to break the campaign. The media from Joe Duffy to the Sunday Independent has put out the most scurrilous lies and suggestions about the campaign. The Gardai who apparently don't have the manpower to stop joy riders or even protect witnesses in murder cases could turn up at every blockade, often in numbers within 30 minutes of it starting. The judges whose investigations into the corruption scandals of the rich drag on for years and have resulted in almost no prosecutions could jail people for standing in front of a truck within hours. The political parties lines up one after the other either to attack the motivations of the protests, Fianna Fail called us scroungers while one Green Party TD claimed this was a case of stupid working class people failing to understand the issue and being led astray by evil lefties.

What you might ask are they afraid of, that ordinary people standing in front of bin trucks prompted this level of hysteria. This brings me to the last point I want to make - why class politics should be central to anyone who wants to fundamentally change the world.

The ruling class is well aware that it is a tiny minority of the world's population. In a straight fight between the working class and the ruling class it would lose every time. That is why it puts such enormous energy into not only dividing us against each other but also into building an enormous system of propaganda that enters every aspect of our lives from our first days in school to slumping in front of the TV at night. And for those who still resist it literally has whole armies to smash this resistance.

We are not going to achieve fundamental change by taking on this might small group by small group. Facing all the apparatus of the state and capital can often seem a hopeless task. But above all else this apparatus can only work if it keeps the working class not only divided but in a situation where it cannot even recognise itself. Because of this the fight against the system is always a fight for recognition - to tear down the barriers that are erected and recognise each other as part of the same class and fighting the same fight.

We live in a class society. We can't wish that away or pretend like small children that if we can't see it that it can't effect us. Class politics remains the key to uniting the overwhelming majority of the world's people in the fight for a new and classless society.

This is the text of Andrew Flood's contribution to the debate at the Galway Grassroots Gathering 6, on 'Class, Ecology and the bin tax'. The other speaker was Niall O Brolacháin (Green Party)

This talk is discussed on


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