Just when you thought he might have left the political stage, Nigel Farage is back again. This time he is heading up the opportunist campaign to bury “Net Zero” under the banner “Vote Power, Not Poverty.” And just as with Brexit – and for much the same reasons – he is going to win. Because while it is true that a minority of climate change deniers have flocked to the new campaign, the fake left are already repeating the errors they made in 2016.
If you wanted to trace the origins of Brexit, rather than looking at the – many – failings of the EU technocracy, you would do well to mark the day when the fake left stopped talking about social class. Because that was the day that the left ceased being a serious voice for change in British politics. Within the UK’s two-party system, class blindness translated into the neoliberal fragmentation of oppression in which various victim groups vie with each other to receive a few socio-economic crumbs from the corporate top table where their self-identified political leaders sup with billionaires and corporate CEOs in exchange for political donations, media support and second jobs in the City. And when – as happened briefly between 2015 and 2019 – a left-leaning leadership does emerge (pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime event) the full force of the technocracy is deployed to render it impotent.
The very fact that there was a referendum on EU membership at all, speaks to the smug complacency of the political class. Cameron viewed it as a way of silencing Tory right-wing rebels for a generation. Labour’s neoliberal leadership similarly viewed it as an opportunity to open the way to a complete capitulation to the EU technocracy, replete with single currency, Schengen zone membership and an end to Britain’s budget rebates. Sheltered behind the gates of their metropolitan middle-class homes, the political class lacked any understanding of the social class inequality that had been allowed to open up across Britain during the neoliberal years, and especially in the eight years following the 2008 crash; when bankers had their mouths stuffed with gold even as benefit claimants were sanctioned to death.
Unexpectedly met with an army of working-class discontents on the campaign trail, the political class latched onto the one issue – immigration – that matched their preconceptions. “You’re a racist!” was repeated across every hustings and every fake left social media profile. And as I wrote just days before the referendum:
“Accusing your opponents of racism is, after all, hardly designed to encourage an opponent to expand an argument so that it can be analysed and challenged. It is, however, something more when it is shouted by the liberal wing of a privileged managerial and professional middle class. In this context, ‘racist’ has always been a dog whistle for the white working class.”
The Guardian’s John Harris was one of very few journalists to grasp the political earthquake that was about to strike in June 2016. And he was clear that the issue was class not bigotry:
“In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into cliches, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’ … ‘No one listens to us’ … ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares.’
“And of course, none of it needs much translation. Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?”
In dismissing people whose livelihoods had been quietly wrecked by decades of neoliberalism as mere racists, remain campaigners lost their one opportunity to offer a pro-EU route to solving those problems – most likely because in reality there was no such pro-EU means which wouldn’t involve a root and branch reform of the entire EU structure; “all power to the parliament!” perhaps.
And of course, the undemocratic drift toward the technocracy’s eco-austerity version of “net zero” has been equally deaf to the plight of ordinary UK households. In the heady days when the UK was pumping more oil and gas than Kuwait, neoliberal politicians could get away with adding a raft of regressive “green” taxes onto household energy bills in order to shovel billions of pounds into the pockets of greenwashed energy corporations. The main opposition to wind turbines in those days was from rural middle class NIMBYs concerned about the view. That was in the heady days before North Sea oil and gas production peaked, and Britain became a net importer of the fossil fuels which were – and are – still needed to balance intermittent wind and solar electricity generation.
The UK became a net importer of oil and gas in 2005 – the same year that global conventional oil production peaked. Then – as now – it was the resulting spike in prices which triggered the chain of events which led to the near collapse of the global banking and finance sector. And when the dust settled even the traditional working class was torn asunder. The new aristocracy of labour was not in the long-closed steel, coal, shipbuilding, and railway industries, but in the public sector enclaves where trade unions could still flourish. The majority though, emerged as a new precariat – dependent upon insecure, part-time and zero hours jobs which could be removed overnight at the whim of an offshore owner or a pre-programmed algorithm. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last year, in the 12 years between the Crash and Covid, the bottom 50 percent of UK households saw their incomes cut – that was before the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions caused energy and commodity shortages which – among many other things – saw gas prices rise more than 900 percent in 2021.
As with Brexit then, the purveyors of the corporate variant of net zero make the cardinal error of assuming there is nothing wrong with the status quo… in this case, it is fine to continue loading corporate “green” subsidies disproportionately onto the energy bills of the poorest half of the population at the same time as millions of people are having to choose between eating and heating. And, as can be seen by the establishment media response to Farage’s new campaign, the error is compounded by dismissing anyone who argues against corporate net zero as the environmental equivalent of a Brexit racist – a “climate change denier.” The result, as with Brexit, being that millions of voters will side with Farage solely because his is the only alternative to eco-austerity on the table.
Nor does the passage of time offer much comfort to the proponents of corporate net zero. The public anger resulting from higher energy bills and the discovery that a quarter of the price is made up of corporate green subsidies, arose out of the impact of the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions… long before, that is, Foreign Office officials had to explain to Liz Truss that Ukraine is not an island in the Baltic Sea. And while the EU technocracy has rowed back on its threat to sanction Russian gas, China and India are already negotiating with Russia to secure future gas that would otherwise have gone to Europe once the current contracts expire. Meanwhile, no amount of wishful thinking on the part of US neocons in the Biden administration is going to build the pipelines, tanker fleets and LNG terminals that would be required to replace European Russian gas imports with LNG from America and the Gulf States. In short, while gas prices may fall back from last week’s spike, they are never going back to their March 2021 level.
Nor are fantasies such as insulating Britain’s housing stock going to come to the rescue. This time because oil- the master resource – is never again returning to its March 2021 levels either. And since the cost of oil is too high, so too will be the cost of everything made with or transported using oil. That includes the insulating materials, and even the scaffolding that would be required to insulate some 20 million houses and apartment blocks. Indeed, sanctions against Russia more or less torpedo corporate net zero simply because essential commodities like nickel – required for wind turbines and electric vehicles – cannot be sourced elsewhere. Similarly, without Russian platinum the hydrogen economy imagined by the World Economic Forum runs into a brick wall. Only energy poverty remains for the future.
The truth, of course, is that we missed our opportunity to build an alternative, environmentally sustainable economy back in the 1970s, when we were warned both about climate change and the limits to growth but failed to act. In practice, the only option on the table for western economies today is some version of de-growth – either managed in such a way that we avoid inflicting famine on the poorest, or via a cascading collapse as the energy and resources that maintain our current way of life disappear. That though, is even harder to sell than the politically convenient lie of corporate net zero.
In the end, faced with a choice between a variant of net zero that inflicts eco-austerity on the bottom half of the population even as supposedly “green” corporations pocket multi-billion pound handouts, and the false promise that ramping up fossil fuel consumption will result in lower energy bills, the majority of us are going to vote for the latter… and no amount of social media virtue signalling and accusations of climate denialism is going to change that.