Transport: how Silicon Valley turns technologies against us all

January 23, 2023

Review of Road to Nowhere: what Silicon Valley gets wrong about the future of transportation, by Paris Marx (2022, Verso)

Unleashing Uber on cities would cut car ownership, because ride-hailing would be cheaper, Travis Kalanick, then Uber’s chief executive, claimed in 2015. It would reduce traffic congestion, allow car parks to be converted to other uses, and complement public transport with its “last mile” service.

Uber drivers demonstrate in London in March 2021, when the IWGB union won a court decision that they are workers, not self-employed. Photo from IWGB

Investors bought into Kalanick’s story, that Uber’s innovative app would produce these benefits, to the tune of billions of dollars. Central to his patter was the claim that Uber was a tech company, not a transport company (since denied by courts in the UK and New Zealand), and his crusade against local government regulations and the “taxi cartel”.

In Road to Nowhere, Paris Marx not only unmasks these falsehoods, but also explains Silicon Valley’s place in the broader crisis of capital, and the social, economic and ecological damage it does.

Marx recounts how Uber expanded in the US after the 2008 recession, flooding the market with drivers, to whom it offered incentives that were then withdrawn, while pay was cut.

Uber’s predatory pricing, financed by stock exchange investors, drove traditional taxi companies out of business. Taxi drivers’ incomes plummeted and their lives fell apart, triggering a slew of suicides.

The post-recession environment provided both a large pool of precarious labour and what Marx calls “incredible technological optimism” (page 109). Central to Uber’s strategy was an assault on cities’ transport regulations and on the labour conditions won over decades by taxi drivers’ union power. Uber and the other technology companies, cheered on by US conservatives and libertarians, deployed technologies as weapons in the class war. 

In the midst of the gathering climate crisis, Uber’s new technology drove greenhouse emissions upwards. Directly contradicting Kalanick’s promises, the Uber model put more vehicles on the road.

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Russia. Renaissance is not going to happen

December 28, 2022

These comments by Mira Tai were published by Doxa, the Russian on-line student magazine that has become a prominent voice against the war.

Hello! It’s Mira.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has compelled many people, who live in Russia but are not ethnic Russians [russkye], to think about how we actually became the “small peoples of Russia” [a widely used term for the non-Russian nationalities that make up about one fifth of Russia’s population]. We saw many parallels between the way that the “Russian world” is trying to swallow up independent Ukraine, and the way that the ethnic republics “voluntarily became part of Russia” previously.

Russians in Berlin demonstrating in support of Ukrainian resistance, 13 November. Photos by Aleksandr Anufriev, from the Feminist Anti-war Resistance facebook page

We have seen how the state, in which openly-declared nationalists hold leading posts in government bodies, justifies the massacre of citizens of a neighbouring country as “denazification”. We have seen how the propaganda machine is speaking openly about the renaissance of a gigantic centralised empire, in which there is no identity except Russian, and no other language than Russian.

These months have made all of us pose a mass of difficult questions, to ourselves and to each other. And no matter how hard the Russian propaganda machine tries to ridicule or denigrate this process, it will not be stopped and not be turned back – because we have changed. The surge of anger among non-Russian people has gone too far. The genie will not be put back in the bottle.

And the further it goes, the more astonishing it becomes that the majority of prominent Russian liberals and representatives of the “anti-Putin resistance”, continue to ignore what is happening. A great example is the new educational project, “Renaissance” [“Vozrozhdenie”], which opened today [23 December] and which has been loudly advertised on Ekaterina Schulmann’s Youtube channel over the last few months.

For the project, nine men and Ekaterina Schulmann invite people to take courses on the theory of democracy, capitalism and protest, the history of Christianity, and so on. They promise that in future this knowledge will facilitate the working-out of “a strategy for the Russian state, rebuilt and reborn as the inheritor of Russian, European and world culture”. Judging by the visual images chosen – golden-haired young women in Monomakh caps [the crown symbol of the pre-1917 Russian autocracy], gold leaf and portraits of monarchs – the school’s founders are especially inspired by the aesthetics of the Russian empire.

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Appeal to Labour Party members: help turn back this tide of greenwash

December 21, 2022

Here is a letter that I sent yesterday to Maggie Ferncombe, the chair of the London Regional Labour party, Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for climate change, and friends in the Labour party in London. It urges them to do something about the tsunami of greenwash thrown over the Silvertown tunnel project by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Labour’s most powerful elected official.

Over the last four years the Mayor and the few supporters of the project have – in defiance of reality, transport research and climate science – claimed that the tunnel project is compatible with policy objectives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It obviously is not, as 70-odd researchers in relevant areas told the Mayor in April 2021, in a letter he did not acknowledge or respond to.

The Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition banner on a climate action march in London, 12 November. Photo by Steve Eason

More roads produce more traffic; more traffic produces more greenhouse gas emissions; decarbonising transport means sharply reducing the volume of traffic; and the resources spent on road-building projects work against that aim, and against the support for public transport, rail, cycling and other non-car modes of transport that can make decarbonisation possible.

Although the Silvertown tunnel project is a London policy issue, it has national implications. Labour’s stubborn denial of reality about the tunnel is on the same level as the Tory government’s fantasies that licencing coal mines, new oil and gas fields, or its own £27 billion road building programme, dovetails with combating global heating.

My letter – attached as a PDF – concerns a very specific set of issues, on which the greenwash spilled over into falsehoods, used by Heidi Alexander, then London’s deputy mayor for transport and now Labour candidate for Swindon South, to justify the unjustifiable tunnel project. If you are reading this and you are in the Labour party, please have a word. Simon Pirani, 21 December 2022.

Dear Maggie Ferncombe and Ed Miliband,

I write to ask you to take action within the Labour Party over the circulation of false information about the climate emergency by the Greater London Authority, and the Authority’s failure to deal with complaints about this false information, in breach of its own rules.

The false information was circulated in 2021 by Heidi Alexander, former deputy mayor of London, in response to people who protested to the Mayor of London about the Silvertown Tunnel project. In particular, Ms Alexander claimed:

(a) that the GLA has adopted plans to reach “zero carbon goals”;

(b) that the modelling of carbon emissions on which the GLA carbon reduction trajectory is based takes into account planned developments such as the Silvertown Tunnel; and

(c) that Arup has conducted an “independent assessment” of London’s 1.5 degree carbon reduction trajectory.

The note below explains the importance of the issues complained of for climate policy. 

Recipients of this false information contacted the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition, for which I had conducted research about the tunnel project. The coalition continued to press the Mayor to review the project and its compatibility with his climate policies, but he declined.

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A vigil for China fire victims

December 5, 2022

A vigil was held in Manchester’s Chinatown on Friday, to remember the victims of the fire in a block of flats in the Xinjiang province of China, BOB MYERS writes.

A friend of ours, who is active in the Hong Kong solidarity movement, had let us know about the vigil. I went there with a friend.  

About 30 young Chinese gathered – all overseas students I would say, not Manchester resident Chinese.

It was very moving, as the demonstrators were clearly very worried about protesting in public and wary of us – the only non Chinese there – and of each other. (Manchester has a big Chinese embassy and lots of security agents.) 

Clearly most of the people didn’t know each other and didn’t talk to each other. (There are tens of thousands of Chinese students in Manchester). But one guy put down the posters you can see in the photos.

So it was more than just a memorial vigil. There was a list of four demands:

1 Allow public mourning

2 End brutal lockdown

3. Release arrested people

4. Defend people’s constitutional rights.

Another poster says: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

No-one said anything, people just stood there looking at the candles. Many passing Chinese people stopped to take photos.

My friend talked with one young woman, and she said: “We don’t know how to organise a protest. You know how to do it but we don’t.”

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Greenwash and techno-babble take us towards catastrophe. We need to turn the great power of social movements against them

November 30, 2022

This interview with Simon Pirani, first published on the Transnational Social Strike platform, is part of the Climate Class Conflict initiative which the platform is promoting, to provide a space for transnational discussion on climate struggles.

Q. In the last years, the climate movement – brought about mainly by young people – has used the strike as its main political tool to claim for a just transition and for climate justice on a global level. Which impact do you think this movement is having, in particular on social movements? Which are the main challenges do you think the climate movement have to face now?

“We have not been defeated”: African climate protesters at COP 27. Photo from Cop27 coalition twitter feed

A. Thank you for these questions. First, it is worth thinking about the way that the meaning of “strike” has changed. As far as I know, for at least two centuries, “strike” had a fairly narrow meaning: a collective refusal to do paid work. It was the most basic weapon of working-class struggle against employers. But under the impact of feminist and other movements, “strike” has come to cover a wider range of actions. The school students’ “Fridays for Future” movement is one such action.

I wish I could answer your question about what impact this is having on social movements! I think, time will tell. There was a moment when the new movements that emerged in 2018 – in the UK, around “Fridays for Future” and Extinction Rebellion – seemed to have the potential to change social movements more broadly. Then came the pandemic and the whole process was disrupted. It really did make organising more difficult.

This year, with the worst of the pandemic over, I have noticed two trends. The first is the growth of protest around climate issues in Africa, and a recognition of that by groups in the global north. The Niger Delta has decades of history of organising against the oil companies whose extractivism trashed the local environment and impoverished the population: that is not new. But some new movements – especially against the renewed push to exploit gas reserves – appear to be broader. Coalitions such as Don’t Gas Africa and Stop EACOP (the East African Crude Oil Pipeline) are significant. And many groups in Europe have made solidarity with the global south a basic building-block of all that they do on climate issues.

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How Russia’s tame opposition parties support the war on Ukraine

November 18, 2022

Russia’s loyal opposition parties have played a crucial role in enforcing and administering the occupation of Ukrainian territory, a new report shows.

The four main parties in the Russian parliament have supported the “destruction of Ukrainian statehood in every form – cultural, political, ideological and historical”, concludes a report by the Eastern Human Rights Group (EHRG), a Ukrainian organisation set up in Donetsk in 2015 by trade union and civil rights activists.

People in Kherson welcoming Ukrainian troops. Photo from the World Ukrainian Congress site

The report finds that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and A Just Russia, another nominally left-wing party, have helped to lead Russia’s campaign of control over the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions over the past eight years. It also addresses the role of the ruling party, United Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), an extreme right-wing populist party.

The CPRF and A Just Russia were active in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk from 2015, despite Russia’s acceptance of the Minsk peace agreements that acknowledged those areas as Ukrainian.

The two “left” parties gave voice to aggressive policies, such as recognition and other formal support for the illegal “republics”, and to ideologies associated with the “Russian world” – a concept of cross-border Russian culture that supports Russian imperial claims – more stridently than government figures.

After this year’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s pro-government opposition parties have supported the administrative and political structures hastily imposed in newly occupied areas of Ukraine.

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Ukraine’s energy system: principles for post-war reconstruction

October 28, 2022

Ukrainian socialists hosted an on line discussion on “Energy Crisis and Sustainability: lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian war” on 22 October. You can watch a recording on youtube here in English, or here in Ukrainian. The panel of speakers included Ukrainian climate policy researcher Maryna Larina; Leszek Karlik of the Energy Policy Group of Razem, the Polish left party; and Christian Zeller of the University of Salzburg; and me.

The event was part of an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine, hosted by the editors of the socialist journal Spilne (Commons). Recordings of all the sessions are now up on line, and well worth viewing.

Here’s the text of my talk. At the end I have added some comments on the discussion, and some links to further reading. I look forward to the continuation of our discussion. Simon Pirani.

□  

I have not been to Ukraine since the invasion in February, and I only understand the difficulties people face at second hand. Furthermore, it is difficult for all of us to talk about post-war reconstruction when the war is raging. Every day this means not only deaths and injuries, but also the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including power stations and boiler houses. 

Delegates from the Independent Miners Union of Chervonohrad delivering food, medicines and other aid to front-line communities last week. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine twitter feed

This winter, Ukrainians will not only be trying to protect themselves from bombs and bullets, but also trying to stay warm and healthy in the face of disruptions to gas, heat and electricity supplies. [This month, Russian bombing has focused on civilian infrastructure, putting one third of power stations out of action and forcing widespread power cuts as winter temperatures set in.]

But even under these circumstances, discussion has begun about post-war reconstruction, in the first place between the Ukrainian government and European governments at the Lugano conference in July. They are making plans for the long term.

The labour movement, and social movements, need an approach to these issues that takes the side of working people and of society, as opposed to economic or political elites. I am going to suggest four principles that can help develop such an approach.

1. Energy should be supplied mainly from renewable sources.

Society internationally needs an energy transition – that is, a transition to a system without fossil fuels, centred on electricity networks, with the electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind and wave power. In Ukraine, there is also some potential for biofuels made from agricultural waste.

I am sure everyone present knows why this is: because global heating could seriously damage human society, and the chief cause of global heating is the burning of fossil fuels.

For the last 30 years, the world’s most powerful governments have gone to great lengths to delay the energy transition while simultaneously pretending to deal with the problem.

The labour movement and social movements need to advocate a transition that serves the interests of society, not capital.

Two points to make about Ukraine specifically.

a. Coal has historically been central, in the Donbas in particular. Coal use has been falling since 2016, mainly due to Russian military aggression. Now, political forces in the Donbas are discussing a future without coal. For example in the recent open letter by the Mayors of Myrnohrad, Chervonohrad and other towns (here in Ukrainian, here in English). I hope that the labour movement and social movements will engage in this discussion.

b. Gas has also played a key role. The government has sought to reduce dependence on Russian gas, and there have been no direct imports since 2015. However, in Ukraine, as elsewhere, gas companies make the false argument that gas is part of the solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, because it produces energy with fewer emissions than coal. Actually, it’s part of the problem. The energy transition means moving away from gas.

2. It is in society’s interests to cut the flow of energy through technological systems.

To understand this, we should, first, forget the idea of “energy demand”. People do not want “energy”. They want the things that it provides – heat, light, electricity to run computers, the ability to travel from place to place, and so on.

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The limits of western economic war with Russia and the failure of climate policy   

October 17, 2022

By Simon Pirani

Download this article as a PDF

Russia’s war on Ukraine marks a historical turning point. The illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, and the nuclear threats issued, are a dangerous intensification. It is a matter of principle, in my view, that the labour movement and civil society internationally should support Ukrainian resistance, and I have written about that elsewhere.[1] In this article, I make an initial attempt to understand the economic war being waged alongside the military conflict, the resulting disruption of energy markets, and their place in the broader social and ecological crises shaking capital.

Anti-war protest in Lisbon. Photo from Feminist Antiwar Resistance / @t_alexx_t

In the first section, I argue that the western powers’ economic war against Russia is reactive and limited; even now, sections of western capital hope to mend ruined business relationships with Russia. In the second section, I show that, until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive. The third section is about the consequences of this year’s invasion for energy markets – in particular the European gas market – and for the energy transition. Narratives of “energy crisis” are being used to double down on fossil fuel investment and undermine the western powers’ commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, magnifying the impact of the war and climate crisis for the whole of humanity.

1. Economic warfare and its limits

The aim of the western powers’ sanctions on Russia is to try to discipline the Putin government, not to destroy it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, marks the breakdown of the relationship established in 1990-92 between Russia and the European powers, especially Germany – a breakdown that those powers had desperately hoped to avoid. This breakdown will transform not only capital’s military arrangements in Europe, but also the energy system, in which cheap Russian gas has been a key element for four decades.  

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Achieving climate justice is about solidarity across borders. Not charity

October 7, 2022

A conversation with Canadian socialist David Camfield about his new book, Future on Fire.

Simon Pirani: Congratulations on the publication of your book Future on Fire. It stands out, in my view, because you avoid pronouncing neat “solutions” to climate issues, you consider actually existing social movements and how they might address the climate emergency. You point to the limited scope of parliamentary politics and “green new deals”, and in chapter 3 argue that mass movements” are “our only hope”. I agree.

You argue that the point of these movements is “to develop the power to force governments to enact the climate justice measures that are needed”. That’s altogether different, you write, from seeking “governing power” (which anyway doesn’t have total control over the state, let alone capital). Movements shouldn’t limit themselves to “pushing the envelope” or holding governments accountable; it’s about applying “relentless and escalating pressure”. I agree.

“People in the global south are being hurt more by climate change”: a protest in Uganda against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. See “About the photo” at the end

The question in my mind is: does it make sense to talk about a “mass movement” on climate issues at all? I am not sure that truly mass movements, in response to issues influenced by climate change, will look like “mass movements about climate”. You argue persuasively that the climate issue is always combined with the social issue: you give the example of Haitians being more vulnerable to death in storms than Cubans, because of the different societies they live in. And you quote Naomi Klein saying that “climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, war, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice”.

Isn’t the reality that – rather than appearing as “mass movements on climate” – mass movements will actually develop in response to immediate, tangible issues, and that the task in hand is to find ways of taking these movements beyond the immediate, to address the larger issues of both climate and capitalism?

Take the “yellow vests” movement in France, which started in response to a tax on diesel fuel. You point out that far-right forces tried to divert the movement along anti-migrant lines, but were successfully confronted by left-wing forces who pushed against social inequality. All this gave rise to one of my favourite slogans, that you quote: “end of the world, end of the month, same struggle”. You write that the yellow vests “forged a powerful link” between climate issues and social issues. But wasn’t the reality actually more complex? Wasn’t that link only realised in a very small, fragile way, that still has to be built upon?

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The Silvertown tunnel reinforces deadly climate doublethink

August 16, 2022

London mayor Sadiq Khan has lashed out at opponents of the Silvertown tunnel project, who are calling on him to pause and review the major infrastructure project at the eleventh hour.

Khan has filed a complaint against Newham mayor Rokshana Fiaz, after she shared on social media a claim by the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition that City Hall had used “lies and half-truths” to justify the scheme.

The complaint has gone to Clyde Loakes, Labour chief whip for London Councils, which brings together the leaders of 21 Labour-led councils in the capital.

The “banshees” street theatre group protesting against the tunnel project, July 2020. Photo by Ben Darlington / SSTC web site

The tunnel project has no discernible local support. Greenwich, Lewisham and Hackney councils are opposed, along with Newham, as are climate scientists, transport researchers, trade unions, community groups and thousands of local residents who have turned out on protests.

Yet preparatory work is already underway, and contractors working for Transport for London (TfL) are lowering pieces of the biggest tunnel boring machine ever used in the UK into its chamber. So political pressure to rethink is peaking.

If the £2.2 billion scheme goes ahead, it will exacerbate dreadful air pollution problems locally, boost road transport, and undermine efforts to tackle dangerous climate breakdown.

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