Capitalism, Environment, Ideology, Politics and economics, UK

Politicising Transition: uniting environmental and social justice through popular education

In this two-part blog, I critique the depoliticised, liberal nature of a disproportionately middle-class-led environmentalism epitomised by the Transition Network. I argue that these movements’ unwillingness to name capitalism as the social system to be overcome is both unsurprising and fundamentally problematic. I argue that this is why Naomi Klein’s latest book is so important since it does exactly this.

In the second part, I point out the limits of the Transition Network’s strategy of ‘localism and resilience’ and argue instead for the need to organise politically to challenge and win state power. I set out ways in which such encouraging social movements might develop an explicitly political dimension through the use of popular education practices.

My central argument is that, as inspiring as they are, most of these movements are classically liberal, i.e. blind (consciously or not) to the exploitative and oppressive social relations of power that really define capitalism. Unless these power relations are identified, named, and challenged, any movement, however dynamic and progressive, will unwittingly maintain the overall system.

Part One: Environmentalism + Capital = Social Injustice

I recently read ‘The Power of Just Doing Things’ by Rob Hopkins, a key figure behind the Transition Network in the UK. The Transition Network has spread from Totnes, Devon throughout the UK and far beyond. It’s an excellent book, full of both inspiring examples and invaluable practical guidance for those tired of feeling powerless in a scary world and wanting to contribute to positive, sustainable change.

Hopkins describes how, through the Transition Network, people around the world are coming together to create new ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food and energy. He also describes how the very act of co-creation rebuilds and strengthens community bonds, and restores individual and collective self-belief. In short, the pro-actively democratic and communitarian nature of the groups and the projects he describes are an inspiring antidote to the currently hegemonic system of authoritarian, environmentally destructive, and socially unjust and alienating neo-liberal capitalism. And yet, my summary of the nature of the Transition Network differs dramatically from the depoliticised frames that Hopkins himself uses. Reading his book, one might never conceive of Transition as being remotely political. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental flaw that has profound consequences.

Naturally, Hopkins talks (liberal) economics. He critiques the concept of infinite growth and the deafening ecological silence of the ‘Austerity versus the New Deal’ debate, arguing instead that this crisis is the ‘new normal’. Against this backdrop, he posits the ‘new Big Idea’ – economic organisation has to be ‘local and resilient’. Economic activity that is maximally local is environmentally far more sustainable; produces far more economic benefits for local people; and facilitates community-building. Resilience reflects the idea that such localised economic units, rather than being ‘hyper-connected’ to the globalised marketplace, should co-exist in a relationship of ‘modularity’ – co-operation, but ultimate independence. The rest of the book offers both practical and refreshingly non-prescriptive guidance and countless inspiring examples of the Big Idea in action. So far, so good.

My problem, as I say, is the absence of politics. There is not a single mention of the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’. This may be intentional: Hopkins may want to avoid seemingly divisive politically-charged vocabulary. Personally, I doubt this is unconscious. Clearly, Hopkins and the Transitions Network see a system. They just don’t want to name it. Does this matter? Very much.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, sports an unequivocal title. Though I have not read it yet, I have heard her speak about the book. She argues that since capitalism is the driver of both environmental catastrophe andsocio-economic poverty and inequality, we need to bring the struggle for environmental and social justice together within one integrated frame, behind one united movement that advocates ‘system change not climate change’. I wholeheartedly agree. We all have to recognise capital as the fundamental obstacle between us and environmental and social justice. It is vital to make this explicit because capital is a chameleon, a shapeshifter. It finds infinite ways to make itself amenable to progressive causes. I offer an example from my own neighbourhood.

Low Carbon West Oxford (LWCO) has pioneered Transition-style actions that bring people together to drastically reduce carbon-burning activities and to generate renewable energy. LCWO recently launched an attractive campaign to raise investment funds for more solar-panel installations on local buildings. On the front page of its prospectus are ringing endorsements from prominent localcapitalists including Richard Branson. Investors are offered a very healthy return: 5% per annum from the government-imposed feed-in tariff and a further 3% tax break.

Where does this money come from? I tried for an hour in vain to find research on the government’s feed-in tariff (beyond George Monbiot’s work), but I can’t help concluding, on mainly logical grounds, that it is socially regressive. The energy firms clearly don’t pay it out of profits. They pass it on. This additional cost must hit the poorest hardest because energy costs as a percentage of expenditure are higher the poorer you are. Poorer households also pay more per unit of energy because they don’t have the creditworthiness or income guarantees needed for better, longer-term deals. The feed-in tariff must also be regressive because is is disproportionately those with capital who are able to directly install or invest in installations that generate energy that feeds into the grid.

In this LCWO scheme, investors get a third of generated revenue, but the risk they take on is neglible. The government backs the feed-in tariff and also provides the tax break. This must also have another socio-economically regressive effect because it effectively offers a tax break for people with surplus capital to invest, i.e. richer people, and that tax break must be balanced by cuts in public spending elsewhere. Overall, then, we see a prime example of how the incorporation of capital into environmental projects generates socially unjust outcomes. It is great that a further third of the LWCO scheme’s generated revenue is distributed for projects in low income neighbourhoods, but this looks like a classic case of charity: the capitalist class (often via the state) takes away with one hand and gives a little back with the other. Environmentalism + capital = social injustice.

With its greater access to capital, time, space, skills, resources, and networks, the middle class dominates much of the environmental movement, including, I would suggest, the Transition Network. Like anyone, members of the middle class are keen to have their cake and eat it, i.e. contribute to renewable energy generation while enjoying bumper returns on their savings. Incidentally, another example of this cake-and-eat-it phenomenon is Fair Trade. Persuasive recent research has shown that, on average, Fair Trade workers actuallyreceive lower wages than their ‘unfair trade’ counterparts. In reality, wealthier consumers pay a premium to do little more than appease their conscience. Again, ethics + capital = social injustice.

Clearly, the neo-liberal project has been all about ‘depoliticitisation’, i.e. relentlessly attacking the working-class and putting much of economic policy into ‘independent’ technocratic hands beyond democratic control. I think that a combination of the general depoliticisation of British societyand this middle-class capital-rich environmentalism explains the absence of politics in Hopkins’ book and much of this wider liberal environmentalist movement. It is unsurprising to find far more politically conscious and explicit groups in areas with larger student and working-class populations such as Bristol and Brixton.

I finish by re-emphasising the crucial importance of Naomi Klein’s new book in this light. Please buy a copy for any middle-class environmentalist you know!

Please go on to read Part Two of this blog here…

Capitalism, Palestine, Politics and economics, Socialism, UK

The Choice

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jewish Communists

I am the only socialist in my family. My granddad might still call himself one, but, in reality, his own material struggles and money fetish have left him a socialist of the heart and capitalist of the head. There is no doubt about where his heart lies, however. He met his own beloved wife at a British Communist Party social event in the East End in the late 1940s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish East End was solidly communist. Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against fascism both at home (against Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’) and abroad (both in Spain and then, of course, in the Allied fight against Nazi Germany).

For many Jews, the ideological commitment to communism ran deep – deep enough to give their lives. For many others, communist affiliation was primarily a strategic position to take in the face of fascism. According to the historians, most Jews at that time seemed to have identified themselves more as ‘Jewish Communists’ rather than ‘Communist Jews’. For them, communism constituted not a means to reach out to the world beyond, but to protect themselves from a threatening world outside.

The dilemma

Seventy years on, and, whilst socio-economic developments have dispersed and diluted Jewish communities and cohesion, a core of religious and/or culturally conservative Jews remain, understandably proud of their traditions and heritage. For them, the parochial East End world remains internalised. Their friends are all fellow Jews, the media and culture they consume reinforce their worldview. However, now a similar combination of capitalist crisis and fascism threatens their world, and, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, the choice they face is not straight-forward.

This past Saturday, the English Defence League held a march in Bournemouth. In response, the anti-fascists, led by trade union Unite, held a counter-demonstration to stop their progress. Ahead of their march, the EDL produced this hate-filled, intentionally provocative video ahead of their march.

The march was planned to go past or near the local synagogue. I suspect that the vast majority of the congregation did nothing other than hurry straight home. However, whilst in the 1930s and 1940s, their affinities would have been anti-fascist, paradoxically, their instinctive self-interest today lies not with the anti-fascists, but with the fascists of the EDL!

The EDL is staunchly pro-Israel. In contrast, the anti-fascists clearly stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people against the Israeli state. This amazing video vividly captures this remarkable political dilemma. 3 minutes in, we see a religious Jew making a speech at an EDL rally. 6 minutes in, we see Hassidic Jews standing against the EDL, with the anti-fascists, and denouncing the fascism of the Israeli state!!

‘Dilemma? What dilemma!?’ would be the predictable response of most conservative British Jews, ‘We are in support of Israel, not of the EDL! We can’t help it if these thugs support Israel too!’ That may be true. Yet, as the EDL-aligned Jewish man in this video shows, capitalist crisis can bring together strange bedfellows…

The ‘centre cannot hold’

The British capitalist state, indeed global capitalism, is in profound crisis. While the richest prosper, most people are suffering from historic falls in living standards. Real wages have already fallen around 15% from 2008 levels. Most of the government’s austerity cuts are yet to be implemented. When the next market crash hits, there is the real possibility for a further huge drop in living standards, even for economic collapse.

https://i2.wp.com/www.columnf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Cost-of-Living-Crisis.png

Graph taken from Michael Robert’s blogpost entitled ‘UK: cost of living crisis continues’

The recent rapid rise of extremist parties and politicians across Europe shows again that during capitalist crisis ‘the centre cannot hold’, and that the supposed ‘best’ indeed ‘lack all conviction’.

The choice

Whether they like it or not, the Jews of Europe face a choice. They can endeavour to maintain ever more abstracted ideological, cognitive constructions in an effort to preserve their current worldview and sense of self. These false cognitive constructions are founded on deep-rooted myths about the Jewish people: as a pure race; as ‘chosen’ by God; as the ‘light of the world’; as perennial victims of jealous, godless enemies. Maintaining such constructions will necessitate ‘the worst’ thoughts and acts of ever-increasing ‘passionate intensity’ that will inevitably lead them into alliance with fascists against the supposed enemies of Islam and, ultimately, socialism.

The alternative – one being embraced by ever-growing numbers of Jewish people – begins with challenging and reconstructing one’s ideology, one’s identity, one’s very self. This is a difficult and painful process, but it is one not just of deconstruction, but of ultimate reconstruction. There is an alternative heritage to claim – one of radical, ‘other-regarding’ Jewish history; of the proud and important role that Jewish people have played in human history in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people. What we might call Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among Nation’s in reverse is an awe-inspiring list indeed! It would include such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Albert Einstein, Frances Fox Piven…and my new hero, Hedy Epstein!

The Second Coming

We are all born into random places, times, and social groups. We are all told that our god is the true god, that our food is the best food, that our culture is the richest culture. We are all right. We are all wrong.

E F Schumacher once said that ‘everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see’. The violence of genocide is only possible through dehumanisation of the other, and dehumanisation of the other is only possible through uncritical eyes.

The ‘Second Coming’ is nigh! The ‘rough beast’ in his twenty-first century guise crashes through Bethlehem and on to Gaza. Once more, propelled by capitalist crisis, barbarism looms large.

My call is in no way for any Jewish person to give up their cultural or religious practices. Yet, all Jewish people do now face a choice. We can choose to remain uncritical and, according to a logic of self-regarding self-preservation, ally with the fascists. Alternatively, we can, via a process of self-discovery and reconstruction, proudly recognise the vital role that other-regarding Jewish people have made to the struggle for universal freedom and justice, and to ally with those groups who have always fought, and continue to fight, against anti-Semitism but also against prejudice, oppression, and hate of any kind. In this way, Jewish people can continue to make a major contribution toward building peaceful and equitable multi-religious/ethnic and, therefore, truly socialist societies.

This article was published on the Column F website here

Capitalism, Politics and economics

How will capitalism end? – summary of Wolfgang Streeck’s recent NLR article

A summary of ‘How will capitalism end?’ By Wolfgang Streek, New Left Review, May/June 2014

This is a summary of a recent article by Wolfgang Streeck in the latest edition of the New Left Review. Here, Streeck sets out what I consider to be a very persuasive and coherent argument about capitalism’s future.

The New Left Review is a subscription journal to which I personally subscribe. This is why I offer this summary. I would also be willing to send the article to anyone who contacts me about this…

How will capitalism end?

Streeck argues that capitalism is now in a state of terminal demise. The symptoms of this ‘critical trend’ are three-fold and most manifest in its core Western ‘de-industrialised’ economies. They are: (1) Persistent and long-term decreasing growth rates; (2) Increasing and unsustainable levels of public and private debt; and (3) Unrelenting increases in inequality, reaching now historic levels.

Three symptoms of capitalism’s ‘critical trend’ in its core economies:

(1) Declining growth rates

oecd growth rates

(2) Ever-growing debt

US historical liabilities

(3) Ever-rising inequality

OECD gini historical

These three processes are, of course, interrelated and often mutually reinforcing. They are rendering capitalism in a situation in which it cannot keep its social promises of collective progress any longer. At the same time, all the ‘wisest’ sages in the land can offer no remedy for its moribund condition. Finally, Streeck argues that capitalism’s slow death has actually been caused by too much success. Drawing from the work of Karl Polanyi, Streeck argues that the combination of its outright Cold War political and ideological victory and the neo-liberal revolution has hugely eviscerated the previous social and political forces and institutions (trade unions, social movements, left-wing parties) that served to save capitalism from its in-built tendency to push beyond the limits of human, social, and environmental stability and sustainability. Thus, in the absence (or severe lack) of countervailing social resistance, this ‘spectacularly successful onslaught of markets’ is gorging on the life forces that makes capitalism’s very existence as a social system possible.

A mere stopgap

Streeck goes on to argue that the actions taken by Western governments to avert financial and economic collapse in 2008 were a mere stopgap, and, indeed, are setting the scene for a larger, more perilous crash. This view is shared even by capitalist elites themselves such as the Bank of International Settlements and the US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke! Essentially, the world economy has been on a life-support machine of unlimited fiat money for several years now, fuelling asset bubbles in financial, commodity, and property markets, and any report or rumour of the central bankers removing this support provokes fear and disorder on global markets.

Capitalism’s and democracy’s messy divorce

Capital accumulation’s slowdown and stagnation leads it into unavoidable conflict with the ordinary working population who produce surplus-value – capital’s life-blood. Thus, unsurprisingly, what we see now is an increasingly strong-armed attempt to intensify the exploitation of people and nature. At the same time, the rise to political dominance of financial capital has also made a huge contribution to the denigration of democracy. Power over key economic policy areas and political decisions are withdrawn beyond the reach of democratic control, handed to ‘independent’ (read ex-banker) agencies and individuals and supranational undemocratic, executive bodies like the dreaded ‘Troika’ – the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank. At the same time, Western governments are increasing their activity in electronic surveillance of their own citizens, and clamping down harder on industrial action and political protest. Gradually, Western elites are re-developing a disdain for ‘egalitarian’ democracy and remembering their admiration for the efficiency of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.

This is entirely unsurprisingly, since, for most of its history, capitalism has been democracy’s fiercest adversary, and they only really made what seems a temporary peace in the post-war era of the Keynesian social contract. This contract between capital and labour – shared prosperity for higher productivity – could have only lasted as long as corporate profits remained high. The continuous fall in profitability from the 1960s, hitting a nadir in the mid-1970s, heralded a counter-reaction in the form of neo-liberalism. It was Reagan and Thatcher who first violently tore up this social contract.

Five systemic disorders

Moving on, Streeck identifies five ‘disorders’ of the contemporary capitalist system. These are: (1) stagnation; (2) oligarchic redistribution; (3) the plundering of the public domain; (4) corruption; and (5) global anarchy.

(1) Stagnation

Here, Streeck brings more evidence to bear here on how capitalist elites themselves are resigned to very low long-term growth rates. Unsurprisingly, he expects continued low growth (and profitability and, therefore, investment) to provoke ‘ever new ways…to exploit nature, extend and intensify working time, and encourage what the jargon calls creative finance, in a desperate efforts to keep profits up and capital accumulation going’. He notes that low growth will not provide states with the resources needed to appease populations and address social conflicts. With capital accumulation continually reliant on asset markets, the overall prognosis is one of ‘stagnation with a chance of bubbles’.

(2) Oligarchic distribution

The top-heavy financial sectors of many core economies will continue to generate a particularly regressive form of redistribution; in effect, ‘extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished, declining societies’.1

Streeck notes that, with their wealth generated increasingly on financial markets (and via transnational production networks, I would add), ‘plutonomic capitalists’ are caring ever less about their fellow citizens, evading taxes, and shifting their fortunes to safe havens overseas.

(3) Plunder of the public purse

Streeck identifies ‘underfunding’ and privatisation as the dominant mechanisms of public resource plunder. He outlines a historical shift since the 1970s from ‘tax state’ to ‘debt state’ and now on to ‘austerity state’. Regardless of endless evidence of corruption, incompetence, exorbitant cost, and waste, the privatisation game continues apace in the core economies and beyond.

Through this public plunder, Streeck highlights the exacerbation of one of the fundamental tensions of capitalist development described by Marx: on the one hand, you have a system of private ownership and accumulation of wealth in which individuals and corporations endeavour and lobby to minimise their public contributions and maximise what they can extract from the state, yet, on the other hand, their continued capital accumulation depends on the public goods – infrastructure, education, health, etc – that the state provides. This, for Streeck, is one key way in which capital’s triumphant victory is facilitating its ultimate demise.

(4) Corruption

Corruption scandals have grown in number and scale over recent decades, and Streeck attributes this both to the rise of finance – an industry in which the boundaries between legal and illegal, and corporate and political power are blurred or overlapping; and in which the rewards are immense and the punishments comparably minute – and a growing desperation to maintain profits.

Streeck argues that the case for an ethical capitalism lacks popular credibility: ‘public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich’. In short, capitalism ‘has become more than ever synonymous with corruption’.

(5) Global anarchy

In short, Streeck here identifies capitalism’s weakening centre as embodied by the US. US state power is weakening, it is militarily overstretched and almost universally reviled or distrusted, the dollar is under pressure, and this has destabilising effects in the global periphery too.

Conclusion

Streeck’s ultimate conclusion is that ‘capitalism, as a social order held together by a promise of boundless collective progress, is in a critical condition’. You’ve got stagnation, growing debt, and inequality. You’ve currently got the global financial system bubbling on a life-support machine of ‘unlimited synthetic liquidity’. You’ve got the gradual evisceration of democracy. You’ve got the traditional social and political institutions for constraining capitalism’s relentless march in a parlously weakened state.

Instead of more old-fashioned Marxist, modernist views of the only possible death of capitalism as murder by revolutionary proletarian social forces, Streeck here ultimately proposes almost capitalism’s suicide by excess – death after a ‘long and painful period of cumulative decay’.

Brief comment

As I say, I found Streeck’s argument persuasive enough to summarise it here. I understand that the focus of his attention here is on the state of the capitalist system itself. Yet, I think that the necessary complement to this piece would be a sociological overview of counter-hegemonic social and political forces. Though I agree they have been greatly undermined in recent decades, we are undoubtedly experiencing a gradual revival at all levels – from the international to the local. If capitalism remains a weak, wounded animal, flailing around for enemies to repress and blood to suck, this will undoubtedly provoke greater social response and organisation. In short, the future for capitalism will be determined, as ever, by the conflict between threatened elites and angered and disillusioned working people with ever less to lose.

 

Capitalism, Ideology, Singapore, Socialism

Arms, Legs…Limits!

Check out this brief video. It’s at the top of the homepage for the upcoming ‘National Achievers Congress’ in Singapore (where I currently live)…

Now take a look further down the NAC homepage below the video. Here, the NAC introduces its philosophy.

There are big problems in society today, we are told. Some of us can rise above them, but most are ‘stuck down below – working our whole lives meaninglessly and never realizing our full potential’. However, this itself is not the problem, but the symptom. Most of us blame our condition on various things – ‘the government, our education system, foreign talent, the widening income gap’. Nope. None of this is remotely relevant to our circumstances. Instead, we are told in no uncertain terms that the problem is us. We are 100% responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in: You are the problem, you are the solution. Let’s think about this diagnosis and prescription in the context of Nick’s video.

There’s no doubting that Nick Vujicic is an incredible man. His immense bravery, strength, determination, and charisma are clear to all. I’m sure that he is an inspiration to countless men and women. Yet…and yet…I have a huge problem with his message, with the principles, with the worldview he and this NAC conference espouse

Two observations about the video. First, I think that it’s particularly revealing that the makers of the video did not actually show another human being refusing to come to Nick’s aid. This is a crucial manoeuvre. The whole focus of this event is on the individual. Therefore, Nick’s success, and by extension the success of any human being, has to be portrayed as a sole endeavour. ‘No one is going to help you in your life’ is the clear message we are to take away early on into the film. Yet, since this is as patently untrue for Nick as it is for all of us, it is necessary for the film-makers to abstract from reality. Were they to actually show a fellow human being refrain from helping another in such a desperate and perilous situation they would probably render their plot untenable. This is why we are not allowed to actually see the act of a human being ignoring another’s cry for helpbecause it would virtually never, ever happen.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that the river is there to signify the River of Life. Yet, if this is so, and if we are to believe that whether we sink or swim in the River of Life depends solely on our own attitude and efforts, then pray tell who constructed the makeshift bridge that Nick seeks to cross by? However talented Nick clearly is, I’d like to see him try to build that bridge himself! Finally, it is important to point out that we don’t actually see Nick crossing the river. As an individual, he doesn’t actually attain his goal, or at least we don’t see him doing it. We’re just led to believe that he is now going to make it.

The first point I’m clearly making is that we are not atomised individuals. We are fundamentally social creatures, linked inextricably to a countless number of others by bonds that stretch far and wide, not just through space but through time as well. These bonds are not just direct ones of kith and kin. Just like Nick’s connection to the people who constructed the makeshift path across the river, everything we utilise/consume or produceconnects us with the people who respectively producedor utilised/consumed that very same item, whether we recognise it or not, whether we ever know about those others or not. From this perspective, the whole of human society is linked together through innumerable social bonds.

The second point I wish to make, that follows on from this, is that, since thisinterconnected society is unfortunately structured by different intersecting forms of oppression and hierarchy, the social bonds that constitute our society are expressive of these structural relations. To refer back to my point about consumption and production, for example, it is obvious that social relations of class permeate here throughout. Thinking of who gets to sit in the boardrooms of big companies or the cabinet rooms of government, i.e. in positions of power, it is far more likely to be rich, white, able-bodied men than poor, black, disabled women. Thinking of our education system – an institution which, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are told to believe has no influence on life outcomes – we see a whole system that is reflective and constructive of oppressive structures of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.

Taking these two points into consideration, if I had one question to ask Nick Vujicic, it would simply be this: ‘Do you think you would still be standing there today if you were an Aboriginal woman with the same condition?’

I don’t know what Nick really thinks about the factors behind his incredible achievements. What I do know is this: It’s no coincidence and it’s far from irrelevant that Nick is a white man, and that he comes from a supportive and loving middle-class Australian family. In earlier parts of history or in other parts of the world today, Nick wouldn’t have even been given the chance of life to succeed in the struggle the way he did. I speak with painful honesty when I say that people with significant disabilities were, and many still are, either aborted, did not survive early childhood, forced into freak circus or, may even be killed at birth.

Nick Vujicic deserves all the praise he gets, but to describe his experience as solely the triumph of the individual is a dangerous half-story peddled by those in positions of social privilege who wish to tell the world about their individual success, and whose greater initial endowments make them trumpet the wonders of natural liberty, free markets, and competition.For them, Nick is the ultimate poster boy: ‘Look, so fair and just is this world that you can make it even without limbs! So, you have no one to blame for your poverty or unemployment but yourself!’

The omitted other half of the story is actually far more fundamental. In reality, it was only fortuitous social conditions that gave Nick even the opportunity to live his remarkable life. For every Nick, there are hundreds, thousands of others to whom unjust social structures bequeath a poisoned inheritance. Even with arms and legs, however much they might seek to improve their position, to grow and develop, to love their life, they find themselves borne down by the weight of oppression. The message propagandised by organisations like NAC has a far wider political significance, of course. Currently, many governments (and their supporters in business and the media) are pushing through severe programs of austerity. At the same time, they are telling those in poverty that it’s their fault. The poor, the weak, the oppressed are told by the rich, the strong, the oppressor that the fault for their misfortune lies solely and purely within themselves. This is a myth that has to be challenged and disproved. It is nothing more than a lie.

The real story of Nick Vujicic is that, in terms of one’s life chances,being born with no arms and no legs, but into a privileged social situation, is actually in many ways considerably easier than being born fully able-bodied into a situation of social poverty, oppression and discrimination. Of course, the individual, her/his abilities, efforts, and application matter. They matter a great deal. Yet, I believe that we are, first and foremost, what Marx called ‘social individuals’ – we all have individual preferences, abilities, and dreams, yet we all want and need to satisfy these in harmony and cooperation with each other, and in the service of our society. We want to achieve personal dreams, but we want to achieve dreams that have social meaning and often benefit. I also believe that this can be achieved by the collective creation of a democratic, socialist system. In such a system, we can create the conditions for every one of us to prosper and thrive. Only social individuals, only socialism can create a world for alla world in which every person, regardless of their physical abilities or disabilities, can achieve what Nick Vujicic clearly has.