Back in the 1970s, with unemployment rising and British industry contracting, workers at the arms company Lucas Aerospace came up with a pioneering plan to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. The ‘Lucas Plan’ remains one of the most radical and forward thinking attempts ever made by workers to take the steering wheel and directly drive the direction of change.
Forty years later, we are facing a convergence of crises: militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos and the destruction of jobs by new technologies and automation. These crises mean we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did, and reopen the debate about industrial conversion and economic democracy.
‘What so inspires me about the Lucas Plan is the democratic egalitarianism which runs through its every part – the work processes, the products and even the very technology they propose.’
This egalitarian ethic inspired Laurence Hall to make the Lucas Plan the focus of a recent national gathering of Young Quakers in Lancaster, up the line from the Trident nuclear submarine yards in Barrow. Eurig Scandrett from the Scottish Green Party made it the theme for Green Party trade unionists because ‘it is the most inspiring example of workers on the shop floor who get self-organised and demand to make what humanity needs.’
The fact that the plan was defeated has not diluted its capacity to inspire. For Eurig Scandrett, its defeat demonstrated that ‘it is the vested interests of the military-industrial machine which is the problem, and that workers liberating their collective brain is where the solution lies.’
The broad outline of the Lucas Aerospace workers’ story was familiar enough in the mid-1970s. Workers faced redundancies, got organised, resisted and insisted that their skills and machinery were not redundant. But here they went further. They drew together alternative ideas with those of supportive academics and, with the encouragement of Tony Benn (then industry secretary in the Labour government), produced their ‘Alternative Corporate Plan for Socially Useful Production’, illustrated with prototypes. Management refused to negotiate. The government, under pressure from the CBI and the City, made gestures of a willingness to talk, but would not move against management. The plan was never implemented, or even seriously considered, although commercial companies elsewhere picked up some of the ideas.
So what are the lessons we can draw from this past experience of ‘ordinary’ people organising and sharing their practical knowledge and skills to illustrate in the present the changes of which we dream? Some of the main ones are discussed below.
Election night put most progressives into a state of shock and disbelief – a metaphysical body blow to all the values and ideals to which we are committed. Even though we knew intellectually that Trump might win, we didn’t really believe it would happen. The pollsters said it would not happen. Most of the corporate media said it would not happen. Most of the power structure was committed to preventing it. Who imagined that a crude narcissistic loud-mouthed bigot could win a national election for the highest office in the land! But that’s what happened.
The day after, the enormity of what had happened started to sink in. Trump’s promised Supreme Court appointments alone could reverse decades of hard fought victories, most especially in relation to human rights and civil liberties. Agencies like the NLRB, EPA, FDA and more could be gutted and regulatory protections they were established to enforce evaporate overnight. He’s already said he intends to move forward to deport two to three million immigrants. Racists, bigots and reactionaries of all sorts have been emboldened and attacks on Muslims, immigrants and people of color have escalated. Trump’s retrograde climate denial and commitment to his fossil fuel industry backers puts the population of the entire planet into peril as a consequence of unchecked global warming.
Trump, a man with a world-sized ego but virtually no experience in foreign relations or governing, will turn running the country over to a band of neocons and social reactionaries – like Vice President Mike Pence – who now see the opportunity to complete the revolution they started when George W. Bush held office. (Imagine a cabinet composed entirely of Dick Cheney clones.) It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
With all three branches of government in the hands of the GOP, Trump will seek to dismantle the funding restrictions imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that capped spending and requires that any increases in military spending be matched by equivalent increases in domestic funding. Once that is accomplished, the sluice gate between the Treasury and Pentagon will be lifted. Domestic programs that provide what’s left of a social safety net and social programs that serve working people and the poor will be drained into the swamp of the military-industrial complex.
As dire as the threats that Trump represents are, for me they have a ring of familiarity. Although the politics, social composition and economics of the U.S. are dramatically changed, I hear an echo of an earlier era – one of which an overwhelming majority of those who voted this month have no memory.
I am a child of the Cold War, born on the early side of the baby boom generation in 1944. I am just old enough to remember the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Living in Milwaukee, for my family the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy were very real. Because my father was a leader in the Wisconsin Communist Party, the FBI was a haunting presence in my family’s life. “Better dead than red” characterized the political climate in which the left strived to remain true to its progressive values. Being labeled a “red” meant being fired, blacklisted, threatened, harassed, and in some cases physically assaulted.
Then came Tricky Dick Nixon, an arch reactionary who made his reputation as one of the Cold War’s ugliest witch hunters. On the day that Nixon was elected, alarm bells sounded not unlike those that are ringing now. There was once again the sniff of fascism in the air.
They rang again when Ronald Reagan, former president of the Screen Actors Guild who led the purge of the left in his union, took office. Prior to switching from B-films to politics, he had appeared weekly on TV as the huckster for General Electric, one of the most prominent and powerful advocates for militarism and an aggressive foreign policy throughout the Cold War.
In the darkest days of the McCarthy era, it was hard to imagine that within a decade we would see the birth of new civil rights, women’s and antiwar movements that would transform the social order and the popular culture of the nation. On the morning after the Nixon and Reagan elections, the future looked grim and threatening. The prospect for progressive change appeared to be fading from the horizon.
I can recall how frightened people were at the prospect of what lay ahead for themselves, their family, community and the nation. Those were decades in which the arms race and threat of all out nuclear war stoked fears of global annihilation. With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the collective memory of the country, the fear of a nuclear holocaust was very real.
But there is an important lesson embedded in that history. Most of the American people actually believe in democracy, freedom, justice and fairness. As dark and threatening as conditions might have appeared in the moment, the fundamental instinct for goodness of a majority of people ultimately surfaced.
KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. Im Kim Brown in Baltimore.
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