For me the question is a “how”. How can we, the people, secure our economic rights? We must go beyond “asserting” our economic rights and instead take action to “secure” them. Much work has been done on what those new economic rights should be. Personally, I believe a universal basic income is necessarily one of the rights that we should secure. It is now time, however, to plan out our journey and work out how we can claim and enforce our economic rights.
We live in and daily reinforce a legal system where real persons and corporations both enjoy rights as individuals under the law. Formally, AGL and my nan share equal legal status. Only one of them though extracts a monopoly rent from the utility bills of millions of Australians. As Marx wrote in Volume 1 of Capital, “[b]etween equal rights, force decides”. The idea of legal equality between real persons and corporations works to entrench our subjugation to private corporations. We may have equal rights, but they have the balance of force on their side.
Tilting this balance of power away from corporations and towards the people is our most urgent task. To shift the balance of power, we must move the people. This means we must start with where people are at today. We have to go to them. We must start with the lived experiences and the concrete reality of the daily life of the Australian people.
We need to think about what during our daily lives most aggressively stands out as a naked exercise of corporate power. It is here, at one of the more visible and commonly used intersections of daily life and corporate power, that our journey should begin.
Every household gets an electricity bill. Every household pays for the corporatisation of the electricity sector. It is a live site of contest as capital struggles to enclose common resources. Some states such as Victoria and South Australia have lived with full privatisation for a generation. Other states have experienced corporatisation as statutory authorities are increasingly run solely for profit, private retailers seek to recoup their marketing budgets and every state (aside from WA) purchases wholesale electricity on the National Electricity Market. This goes beyond a simple public-private dichotomy. Every household pays for the rising corporate infection of our common electricity assets.
Being a site of live contest gives campaigning around social ownership of electricity two advantages. There is widespread memory of a publicly-owned and pre-corporate electricity sector. While it clearly wasn’t perfect – it worked and people experienced it. This makes the concept of the social ownership of electricity realistic. Further, there will inevitably be further struggles in the electricity sector as capital seeks to extend its control. A live campaign focused on a shared vision of electricity as part of our common wealth gives us the opportunity to reverse the current. We can shift from defensive struggles to proactively shifting the balance of corporate power.
This is, however, more than merely an opportune place to start a journey. It is a road which gives us the best opportunity to work together across ideological traditions in the Left, maximum room to manoeuvre and plenty of scope to recharge our hope along the way. Electricity flows through all levels of community – where prospects may (temporarily) appear weak at a national or state level there is a growing movement of community power cooperatives being established throughout Australia. These are sites of hope.
Historically, social movements have faced three main strategic choices – to ignore the State and build alternative structures of change, to create changes within an existing system or to overturn a system. Splits and disputes between these tendencies have ruptured promising social movements before. However, if elements within each of these strategic threads works genuinely towards the same end (even if proponents of each thread remain suspicious towards and critical of the people and bodies within the other two), they can contribute to a growing momentum.
As a new system of electricity generation and distribution is built within the gaps of the old, reformist politics can assist with transferring resources to it and sheltering it. There will come a moment, however, a series of strikes or protests perhaps which will announce the dominance of social ownership in electricity.
This road leads, moreover, to deep change at a civilisational level. The electricity bill in the hands of the householder is the entry point into a deeper conversation about a society where community and worker cooperatives are generating renewable energy. It is the entry point to a conversation about a society where social ownership of public goods predominates, where cooperative-based production is norm, and a sustainable society that is actively drawing down carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Once we charge imagination with hope there’s no telling where it might end up. First though, if we want to secure our economic rights, the people have to take power.